Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How to harvest the fruits of the field


Advice on picking beans, berries, tomatoes, and more this summer.

If you’ve got a you-pick as part of your farm share, or you’re planning to go to a commercial you-pick farm this season, you’ll want to be prepared to make the best of your time. Going out for the fun of berry picking or choosing a jack o’ lantern pumpkin is one thing, but if you’re out there to bring in a harvest of food for your pantry or freezer, you will want to make the most of your time.

Fruit or vegetable?
But what if I want vegetables? you ask right away, thinking of green beans, tomatoes. In fact, most you-pick fields are for fruit: tomatoes are a botanical fruit, not a vegetable, as are pumpkins, eggplants, peppers. Green beans are seed pods; not exactly fruit, but closer to the meaning of the word than vegetable, which is everything else: undifferentiated plant matter. When I think of harvesting a vegetable, I think of taking the whole plant, or at least the parts it’s using: leaves, stems.

It’s not that easy
My first job harvesting, I merely held the clipboard while my new boss, Terry, wielded the machete, decapitating cabbages neatly at ground level. I began to understand that harvesting is a skill, not something to stumble into and expect to be any good at.

The cabbage harvest came in January; it was in Florida, with growing seasons all year round. My next lessons in bringing in the crop would come with my mother-in-law, who took me with her to the strawberry you-pick fields. Here, I got lessons that could be more broadly applied.

Make hay while the sun shines
Make the time to pick when the picking is easy, or you will lose too much of your time to gleaning instead of getting a high return on your investment.

Bring containers
Bring containers to pick into that will protect easily bruised fruit. I bring stacks of plastic quart yogurt containers to pick berries and herbs into. Green beans are sturdy and can be picked into a cloth grocery sack. Tomatoes need sturdy-sided buckets to help prevent crushing.

Don’t be a redneck (unless you want to)
Wear a hat and clothing that will protect your neck from the sun. The term “redneck” comes from the burn a farmer gets across the back of his neck, working outside. If you pick shirtless, you may end up with your neck and shoulders blackened while your belly remains as pale as it started, because to pick, you must bend, kneel, squat, or otherwise get down as close as possible to plant level. Child labor begins to make sense, here.

Hide and seek
The fruits of most plants will hide under the leaves, if they can, to avoid burning in the sun. You can’t see the ripe fruit easily by standing over the rows and surveying the leaves. Your eyes will try to pick out the color of sweet berries, and will find only the sunburnt outermost leaves of plants, crisp against the sandy bed.

Push back the leaves so you can see the stems, and let your eyes adjust. It can take several seconds of focus on the inner parts of the plant before your brain can play the “Where’s Waldo?” game it was designed to play: find the food.

This focus is particularly important when the food isn’t bright red and round. Ripe green bean pods look very much like the stems of green bean plants. The critical eye you are developing in the field is for what the ripe fruit looks like, so it leaps to your eye.

Eat some
If it can be eaten raw, brush off any visible dirt and have a bite. It helps motivate you for the picking and processing, and if your body is pleased with the food, it may help you find it more easily while you’re out there in the field, picking.

Avoid waste
Don’t bother to pick the underripe, the overripe, the split and the damaged. Nothing gets bigger after it’s picked, and most fruit will not continue to ripen. Strawberries don’t ripen after you pick them; tomatoes, once they’ve reached mature green (a paler shade), tomatoes will ripen off the vine. Don’t pick more than you can clean and process before it begins to wilt. Don’t pick what you don’t like to eat.

Bottom up
Note where the ripe fruit is on the first plants, and continue to look in those places on subsequent plants. Tomatoes ripen in hands, or clusters, from the bottom to the top of the staked vine. Work your way methodically down the row, not skipping the first or last plants in the row, or those that have fallen over or been overtaken by weeds. In fact, gleaning after other you-pickers, who are inevitably amateurs, you find that these are precisely the places that the leery avoid. Some of the fattest berries are in the tall weeds on the edge of the patch.

Processing
When you get your haul home, clean and process it as quickly as possible. Enlist friends and family to help with the processing. It’s the most boring part, and the easiest for even the unskilled and uncoordinated to do.

Wash everything gently and thoroughly. Discard anything you’ve brought home that isn’t fit to eat. Remove tips and strings from green beans, hull berries, blanch and skin tomatoes … research the food you’re going to put up before you even set out, so you know what will be involved after you come home from the fields.

Clean up and plan something easy for dinner.

Rest.
You earned it.





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