Friday, June 12, 2015

U Pick a Lotta Berries: Webb Ranch, Portola Valley, CA June 10, 2015

Well, the days of summer are upon us and I always find myself trying to come up with some clever way to entertain my children.  Summertime is a really precious time with your kids.  They are only home for 11 weeks.  It is super easy for that time to fly by having them sleep too late, watch TV, and play computer games indoors, while I spend my time sitting at my computer, cooking, and cleaning.  Since I work two days a week, I make sure that on the other three days I plan some kind of fun activity for my kids..something to get them out of the house and hopefully into the sunshine and breathing fresh air.  One fun, quick, and relatively inexpensive option is to pick fruit on a local farm and bring it home for your own enjoyment, more commonly referred to as "U-Pick."

There are plenty of U-Pick Farms within an hours drive of Santa Clara County.  Information about all local U-Pick farms can be found on one website,   Most are located over the mountains in the Watsonville area.  Fruit availability is very seasonal I hear, though I have never tried to go any time but early June, when berries, berries, berries--are the order of the day!  Even so, every year the seasons are different, and "specific berry availability" can be limited to a very narrow window of days to weeks. As a matter of fact, I saw one farm advertise that boysenberry picking was going to be unavailable this year!   Hours and open days vary, so it is important to check the farms websites to get the details.  And remember, these are farmers, not techies, so farm websites can tend to be a little simple, short on details, and even out of date.

We had a few hours on a Wednesday so I asked my daughter to get on the internet and try to find us a U-Pick farm.  Lo and behold, we came upon Webb Ranch in Portola Valley, only 25 minutes north of our San Jose home.

Webb Ranch is located at 2720 Alpine Road.  The main farmstand is visible immediately on your exit onto Alpine Road off Interstate 280, but the U-Pick area is just a very short drive away on the west side of the freeway.  I grew up in this area and Webb Ranch has been there forever-but I never remember hearing anything about a U-Pick farm.  They are open from 8am until 1pm, only on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  We came on opening day! (June 10) and it looked like per their website that they would be open for U-pick until July 11.

How it works...

After parking your car (or I might as well say minivan, because that is what everyone drove there)  you proceed to a little hut where you pay your entrance fee of $4 per person--a little lame I must say, as I never remember the Watsonville U-picks charging an entrance fee---kids under 4 and adults over 65 are free. Major credit cards are accepted, which is something else I do not remember from the Watsonville U-picks.  You are provided with baskets (personal containers are actually not allowed) with which to collect your berries and off you go!!

There is no limit to how many berries you can collect.  Apparently the pickings slim as the day goes on, but we arrived at 10 and, maybe because it was opening day, there were still plenty of berries.  I did not see any raspberries or blackberries available for picking, but the rows and rows of ollalieberries and boysenberries were ripe and waiting to turn our clean fingers bright purple.

Though I am not an expert, I would say there are some definite tricks of the trade that will make your U-pick experience the best it can be.  The easiest thing to notice is that this is a very little kid friendly experience.  Many playdate groups and moms of little ones, really little ones, show up to create some occupation for an hour or two.  The kids tire fast, eat and pick as many pink berries as black ones, and seem to cluster at the ends of the rows.

  Rule #1:  The best place to find the best selection of berries is at the end of the rows as far away as possible
You do not need any special clothing or equipment.  Though there are nettles and thorns, I did not wish I had work gloves.  Closed shoes were advised, were worn, and were plenty dirty and full of field crud by the time we got home.  Though today it bordered on rainy, I would imagine the sensitive to the sun would appreciate a hat and sunscreen.  Okay, if you don't want completely purple hands and nails, maybe some examination type or dishwashing gloves would come in handy.

As the song says.."the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice." Any berry that is not a dark dark purple bordering on black is not ready and should be overlooked. Leave it for the 5 year old behind you.  Berries should fall into your hands with a light tug.  The best berries are found in hidden in the recesses of the vines and near the ground.  Marketing experts know that adults tend to shop at eye level.  Many of the best fruit is passed by those unwilling to bend and crouch.

It did not take long before the three of us filled our allotted baskets and the kids went back to get two more, which we also promptly filled.  In about an hour and 15 minutes, we had collected over 10 pounds of delicious ripe berries.  We also had eaten some!

When you are done, you take your collection to be weighed and paid for.  At Webb Ranch, all berries are $5 a pound.  All told we bought $58 worth of berries! I compared this price against other U-Pick Farms and there is no doubt that you may be paying extra for the convenience of not going over the hill and the ability to use credit cards.  Crystal Bay Farm in Watsonville also charges $5 per pound of berries with a $2 entrance fee and are open Wednesdays and weekends from 10-5, but their website did not mention allowing credit cards. Gizdich Ranch, also in Watsonville, charges only $2.75 per pound for their ollalieberries, and does not mention an entrance fee on their website, but neither do they mention allowing credit card use.  They also have NO boysenberries for U-Pick this year and their Ollalie season is going to end June 21.  They are open daily 8-5.  SO, all told, it is somewhat difficult here to really compare apples to apples (HAHA--that was funny!!)

Wow, you have a lot of berries here!!

We loaded our entire flat of berries into our car with our juice-stained hands and drove off, dreaming of jam and cobbler and crisps and pies, berries in smoothies, berries mixed with yogurt, berries over your cereal, etc.  Do I sound like Bubba talking about shrimp in "Forrest Gump?"

Of course you have to freeze most of the berries.  I find that this is best done by spreading the berries in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper. Each batch takes about one hour to freeze and you have to do it little by little, but by the end of your project you have Ziploc Bags full of tasty frozen berries ready for eating pleasure whenever you should so choose.

This must be the place!

 Please don't touch your white shirt!!!
That's all for now!  I hope you enjoyed reading this post and are enjoying your summer!


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