Pick your own fruits and veggies, support Alabama farmers while social distancing

Pick your own fruits and veggies, support Alabama farmers while social distancing
Surrounded by strawberries, Jeremy Calvert and his twin daughters survey part of their 40 acres. A sixth-generation farmer in Cullman County, Calvert is reaping rewards from farming despite the pandemic. Focusing on sales at Calvert's Farm Stand, he and his employees load up customers' selected fruits and vegetables while maintaining social distancing. His customers appreciate the 'new normal' operations. (Jeremy Calvert)

Visiting a “you-pick-them” farm or a country farm stand for fresh fruit and vegetables – away from crowds – can help your health and your wallet.

Hop on over to one of Alabama’s you-pick farms to find the freshest produce. Now is the perfect time to find delicious, ripe strawberries and garden-fresh produce. It’s fun to pick and choose your fruits and vegetables and it’s sure to be a memorable experience for you and the kids. Spending time outdoors, the most natural form of social distancing, beats waiting in line at the grocery.

Forage among the freshest fruit

“Nothing sounds better than strawberry shortcake or fresh strawberries,” said Mary Wilson of the Alabama Farmers Federation in Montgomery.

There are myriad ‘you-pick’ farms to visit in Alabama. (contributed)

Indeed, now through mid-May is the time to get your strawberry fix. Most berries including blueberries, blackberries and raspberries will soon be in season.

“You’ll find the freshest strawberries now,” Wilson said. “Blueberry season starts in May. Berries will be in season in Barbour County in a week or so. The further north you are, keep in mind that the berry season is later.”

Check a farm’s Facebook page or call before you go, she advised.

“There are only so many berries or vegetables in a field at a time,” Wilson said. “Some farms have more demand than they can supply. Sometimes, they open the gates at 9 and by 11:30, they’re picked over. You don’t want to be disappointed if you get there too late.”

A rainy day can derail a day of berry or vegetable picking because many farms close to the public. Some you-picks don’t open the day after a rain because the fruit isn’t as tasty – it absorbs some of the water, which dilutes natural sugars.

“The fruit will taste and save much better after it has a day of sunshine to dry out some of the water and bring out more of the natural sweetness,” Wilson said.

‘Every day is Saturday’ at Sugar Hill U-Pick Farms

The way Scott Penton sees it, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned every day into Saturday for a lot of people.

With more people staying home – and many moms attending to youngsters – Penton’s business is booming at Sugar Hill U-Pick Farms, 358 County Road 59 in Verbena.

“We have a lot of people coming out every day,” said Penton, who owns Sugar Hill U-Pick Farms with his wife and in-laws. “I’d estimate we have anywhere from 700 to 1,000 people coming in a day. A lot of people are coming out that we usually wouldn’t see because of work, or they’re usually busy with activities with their kids, such as soccer and baseball practice.”

At the Pentons’ place, picking your own strawberries and fresh vegetables is popular, though some folks prefer pre-packaged options. Pick a bucket of berries for $9 or pay $11 for berries already picked. Select a head of lettuce or a bunch of kale for $3, and pull your own onions, two for $1.

If Penton had a crystal ball to see into the future, he would have planted more strawberries this past fall.

“We have to plant strawberries in October, and we put 150,000 strawberry plants on 12 acres,” Penton said. “This year, we could have used three times as much.”

Saturdays are packed with families who line the fields in search of ripe berries and vegetables.

“We don’t have enough plants to go around after a few hours,” Penton said. “People are saying, ‘We haven’t been out in two or three weeks.’ Lots of people bring a blanket, have a picnic and sit outside. There’s plenty of room for social distancing.”

Before driving to Verbena, Penton said to check their Facebook page to ensure the farm is open. Unless the farm is “picked out,” Sugar Hill U-Pick Farms is open Mondays and Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays to Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Penton’s children deliver fresh strawberries at the Market at Pepper Place in downtown Birmingham. Pre-order online on the Pepper Place website or call 205-351-1480 to order.

After the quarantine lifts in two weeks, Penton and other farmers will spread out 25 feet between tents, and customers may walk up one at a time to select produce.

The pandemic has presented more uncertainty for the Pentons and their family, who are investing in new public areas and bathrooms to open this fall for pumpkin patch season.

“With these crops, we’re putting money into it every day, not knowing if we could sell it,” Penton said. “It all depends on what happens in the next few months.”

Thriving in the ‘new normal’  

America was built on the family farm, and Jeremy Calvert (left) is proud to continue the tradition. (Sweet Grown Alabama)

As a sixth-generation farmer, Jeremy Calvert is familiar with the ebbs and flows of the industry. But COVID-19 has presented new challenges for Calvert, who has farmed his 40 acres for 20 years.

As the owner of Calvert’s Farm Stand at 30 County Road 260 in Cullman, he revised his business model as coronavirus cases escalated. In normal times, customers drive up to Calvert’s business, taking as much as they want to inspect the produce.

Now, Calvert conducts all sales from 6 feet away, as required per medical safeguards. He said the new rules make business sense while assuring customers they aren’t coming into contact with COVID-19. He accepts cash and checks.

“We offer only drive-through and pull-up services,” Calvert said. “Customers tell us what they need, and we’ve got four or five people who will load up your car with whatever you want. They put the vegetables in your trunk or back seat. We try to keep away and keep everyone safe.”

“We built this store five years ago, and it continues to grow,” said Calvert, who phased out of poultry farming in 2014 and is a mainstay at the Walker County Farmers Market. “We get lots of repeat business.”

Calvert has planted fruit and vegetables at his farm in Bremen: 1.5 acres of strawberries; about 10 acres of tomatoes; 20 acres of pumpkins, and 13 acres of peaches. In the fall, he sells fresh peanuts.

Calvert’s Farm Stand offers a variety of fruits and vegetables. (Jeremy Calvert)

It’s a family business in the truest sense: Calvert’s wife, his 17-year-old son, his cousins and his father pitch in.

“We’re picking strawberries every day,” he said. Customers will find a 3-quart pail for $12 or a 1-gallon bucket for $15 at Calvert’s Farm Stand.

“Our customers talk about how they really like that we’re doing this,” he said. “We shove it in the car, and they’re gone.”

Calvert’s Farm Stand is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and closes early on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m.

Sweet Grown Alabama

Alabama shoppers wanting to connect with and learn more about farmers in their area can soon check out a new website offered by the nonprofit Sweet Grown Alabama.

Formed in 2019 through the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and the Alabama Farmers Federation, the nonprofit will spotlight Alabama’s farm products for sale to the public. The organization enhances marketing opportunities for Alabama farmers by connecting retailers and consumers to Alabama-grown foods and other agricultural products. Some farmers are helping distribute the products of rural farms by sharing connections, allowing consumers who need food products restaurants and other businesses to buy produce that might not otherwise be sold.

The public will see billboards from Sweet Grown Alabama starting May 1. (Sweet Grown Alabama)

With more than 120 farmer members, Sweet Grown Alabama’s website will debut in mid-May, but consumers looking to find local farmers can visit https://tinyurl.com/findlocalnow.

“We are helping farmers network with one another through Sweet Grown Alabama to find alternative markets in times of COVID-19,” Watson said. “We want to strengthen networking and marketing efforts of Alabama farmers.”

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