Fresh from the field, Connecticut Grown strawberries are now ripening and ready to eat. Strawberries are the first fruit available in Connecticut and signal the arrival of summer for many residents who look forward to visiting one of the state’s pick-your-own farms.
“Visiting a Connecticut strawberry patch to pick your own is a wholesome, family fun activity,” said Bryan P. Hurlburt, Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner. “This type of activity supports local farms and farm families while generating millions of dollars in agritourism for the state’s economy. And, the best part of it all is that you get fresh Connecticut Grown strawberries to eat at home.”
While it’s early in the season, producers are reporting that picking is quite good. “Despite the amount of record breaking rain in April and early May, the strawberries crop is now experiencing excellent weather for maturing to ripening. The season is off to a great start and it appears that the production will be right in line for a successful strawberry season,” said Nancy Barrett, owner of Scantic Valley Farm in Somers, CT.
It’s a good idea to call ahead, or check the farms website, for daily updates as weather conditions impact availability. Sweet and juicy strawberries are also available now at farmers’ markets and farm stands throughout the state. Find one near you at www.CTGrown.gov/strawberry.
When ripe, strawberries smell wonderful and taste even better. As members of the rose family, this perennial plant is a good source of vitamin C, manganese, folate, and potassium. They are also loaded with antioxidants.
Strawberries should be plump and firm with a bright red color and natural shine. The color and fragrance of the berry, not size, are the best indicators of flavor. Once you get your strawberries home, wash them and cut the stem away to store in a cool place. If you plan to keep them in the fridge for a few days, wait to clean them until you plan to eat them. Rinsing them speeds up spoiling.
Strawberries can be used to make jams, jellies, shortcake, pie and more. They can also be pickled, especially when picked green or unripe, or frozen to use later in smoothies. Find more recipe ideas to create your own delicious dishes by visiting our Pinterest page at https://www.pinterest.com/GrowCTAg/.
Make plans to visit a Connecticut strawberry patch this weekend to create lasting memories and delicious, healthy dishes.
One of the best things about early summer in Connecticut is strawberry season. It just makes no sense to buy California berries at the supermarket in June or July. I once saw a post on a local farm’s Facebook page where a customer shared a picture of two strawberries cut in half….the Connecticut berry was deep, dark red in color and looked to be juicy and fresh. The supermarket berry was pale and dry looking. Seriously, it is not a difficult choice!
In an article on the University of Illinois Extension web site, Drusilla Banks and Ron Wolford gathered some facts on the history and lore of the strawberry. Some thoughts to ponder when working on your strawberry patch—or filling your bucket at the local pick-your-own:
“Madame Tallien, a prominent figure at the court of the Emperor Napoleon, was famous for bathing in the juice of fresh strawberries. She used 22 pounds per basin, needless to say, she did not bathe daily.
The American Indians were already eating strawberries when the colonists arrived. The crushed berries were mixed with cornmeal and baked into strawberry bread. After trying this bread, Colonists developed their own version of the recipe and strawberry shortcake was created.
Strawberries are ready to harvest when they are a bright shiny red color. If they are greenish or whitish, leave them on the vine. They will not ripen further after harvesting. Very dark berries are likely to be overripe—you will need to eat them on the day you pick.
First, don’t pick if you are sick. Stay home and let someone else do the picking. Before heading out to pick the berries, wash your hands. If you go to a PYO operation, ask if they have handwashing facilities. In a pinch, can you use a hand sanitizer? Hand sanitizer should not be a substitute for washing hands with soap and water. Dirty, wet or sweaty hands are not much safer when rubbed together with a glob of hand sanitizer. In addition, hand sanitizers are not effective against all types of microorganisms: especially viruses such as the Norovirus. So, whenever possible, wash your hands the old-fashioned way.
Pick berries that are bright red and leave those that are overripe, mushy or moldy. If you are planning to make jam or jelly, don’t think that you can get by with shoddy, overripe berries—you might end up with shoddy, overly-soft jam: you will never end up with a product that is of better quality than the fruits or vegetables that you started out with.
Refrigerate the berries as soon as you can after picking. This will help with shelf life. But, do not wash the berries first. If washed, the berries are more likely to get moldy in your refrigerator. Store unwashed berries loosely covered with plastic wrap in the coldest part of your refrigerator for two to three days at most. Always wash them before eating. To wash, place berries in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Do not allow berries to soak in water—they will soak up the water, lose color, flavor and vitamin C.
For the best results, pick fully ripe, firm berries with a deep red color. Throw out any immature or unripe berries or those with rot, soft spots or mold. Wash and remove caps.
You may choose to freeze your berries with or without sugar. While many choose sugar-free because of perceived health benefits, keep in mind that for high quality results, packing in sugar is your best choice. Unsweetened packs generally yield a product that does not have the plump texture and good color of those packed with sugar. The fruits freeze harder and take longer to thaw. While some fruits are acceptable when packed without sugar, strawberries are best packed with sugar. The exception is if you are freezing berries to make into jam at a later date (and of course, if you must use sugar free products as part of a health regimen).
Unsweetened Dry Pack (for making jam later)
Simply pack the washed and drained fruit into a container, seal and freeze. A tray pack is an alternative that may make the fruit easier to remove from the container. Spread a single layer of fruit on shallow trays and freeze. When frozen, promptly package and return to the freezer. Be sure to package the fruit as soon as it is frozen, to prevent freezer burn. Use bags or hard plastic containers made for use in the freezer.
Whole Berries Sugar Pack
Add three-fourths of a cup of sugar to one quart (one and one-third pounds) of strawberries and mix thoroughly. Stir until most of the sugar is dissolved or let stand for 15 minutes. Put into plastic freezer bags or freezer container.
Sliced or Crushed– Prepare for packing as for whole strawberries; then slice or crush partially or completely. To one quart (one and one-third pounds), berries add three-fourths of a cup of sugar; mix thoroughly. Stir until most of the sugar is dissolved or let stand for 15 minutes. Pack into freezer bags or hard plastic freezer containers.
If you want to make strawberry jam, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation. You will find a tested recipe for strawberry jam as well as many other canning recipes. Extension now recommends that all jams and jellies be processed in a water bath canner. This means that you must use glass jars with two-piece canning lids. The five-minute process will minimize the chance that molds and yeasts will spoil your jam. Shelf life will improve and you won’t waste all your hard work and precious berries.
For more information about safe handling of fresh-picked strawberries, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at 877-486-6271 or www.ladybug.uconn.eduor the National Center for Home Food Preservation for canning and freezing information at www.uga.edu/nchfp.
Over the years I have worked with many fruit and vegetable farmers, as they have become the focus of new food safety regulations. Some of these farms sell their product through pick-your-own (PYO) operations, some at an on-farm stand; others have CSA (community supported agriculture) programs. More and more of them are no longer allowing visiting dogs on their property. Some customers are not taking it well.
It can be difficult after years of being allowed to bring the dog along to the farm as you pick apples or visit the market. There might have even been a farm dog or two lounging in the back of the store or running up and down the aisles. But, things have changed, including food safety standards of practice. Believe it when I say, this is much harder on the farmer.
Starting with the voluntary Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program over ten years ago, it has become the standard for dogs, cats, and even wandering chickens to be reined in during the harvest season, in particular. These new practices and rules came about when fruits and vegetables hit the top of the “most likely to cause a foodborne illness” charts. Outbreaks associated with fresh produce are making more people sick than seafood, hamburger, or chicken. The new federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, adopted due to this increase in association with outbreaks, will result in food safety inspections of some of the larger farms in Connecticut—and more attention will be given to where Kitty or Spot are roaming.
Cats can no longer be used as pest control in a packinghouse. Chickens cannot be free ranging in the lettuce fields. Pet dogs should not be allowed to defecate near the squash vines. Animal feces can be the source of Salmonella, E. coli and other disease causing microbes associated with foodborne illness. Of course, this is not limited to domesticated animals. Wildlife must be carefully monitored, and, when possible, managed with fences or repellents, such as an air cannon. Outbreaks have been associated with feces on produce. It only makes sense to try to reduce the risk.
So consider the farmer and the burden visiting pets may place on them. Dogs make great pets, but they come with some bad habits that may have an impact on the safety of the food a farm grows and sells. What are you going to do when at a moment you are distracted, perhaps paying your bill; your dog lifts its leg on a produce display, or box of apples at the farmers’ market? Even if the owner attempts to be fastidious about cleaning up after a dog’s mess, it’s unlikely that all traces of poop can be removed. It will be left to be tracked throughout the market or growing area. Chances are you are petting your dog, and then choosing the perfect apple without even thinking twice about it.
While food safety is one concern, customer safety can certainly be another reason for the “NO DOGS ALLOWED” signs. Dogs will be dogs, and no matter how
well trained, dog bites, dog fights and other unpleasant contacts with other customers can sometimes be problematic. Some folks may be allergic to your dog. It would be much better if you just buy some gourmet home-made dog treats at the market and bring them home to her.
Yes, it is true that some farmers’ markets and even some pick your own farms still allow patrons to bring their pets along for the ride. It is a risky choice they make. Please follow the rules at the farm you choose to visit—and thank the farmer for their concern for customer health and wellbeing.
In addition to restrictions on Fido, the farmer may encourage you to wash your hands before picking your own berries or after using the portable toilet. Or they may ask you not to visit the farm if you are sick. Foodborne disease outbreaks are often traced back to sick people or unclean hands that are touching food. And we all know that when we are choosing our fresh produce we have to handle at least six or seven tomatoes or cucumbers or whatever before we find the one that we are happy with.
Farms are also limiting public access to their farm animals. Some of this has resulted from farm visitors getting sick after handling baby goats or chickens. These animals may carry pathogens (the microbes that make us sick) with no outward signs of illness. Another farm no longer lets visitors feed goats, as there is no on-label rabies vaccination available for goats. While they may use an off-label product, perhaps one that is approved for other farm animals, technically, the goats are not vaccinated. Famers do not want customers inadvertently contracting rabies from one of their animals.
Connecticut has an abundance of farms that open their gates to those who want to pick their own raspberries, apples, vegetables and other seasonal offerings. I have picked raspberries well into October in the past, though I am not sure how the hot summer and early fall have impacted the longevity of the berry season this year. But, you can easily find apples and perhaps pears only a short drive from where you live. To find Pick Your Own (PYO) farms near you, go to www.ct.gov and search for “pick your own farms in Connecticut.” This will bring you to a list of farms by county offering small fruits (berries), large fruits (apples, pears) and vegetables as well as pumpkins and Christmas trees.
However, this is not an article simply about where to find PYO farms. This is a message about being a responsible PYO customer.
Chances are you have read articles about fruits and vegetables being the source of foodborne outbreaks in recent years. Produce has risen to the top of the list as likely sources of illnesses caused by Listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli and parasites such as cyclospora and cryptosporidium.
Produce can be contaminated in the field and during harvest. Wildlife can deposit poop in the fields or directly on the fruits or vegetables; rodents and insects can contaminate produce with animal manure that can be on their feet; those who harvest produce can contaminate apples or pears or berries with dirty hands. Irrigation water can also contaminate produce if the source is not safe. Nature is nature, but there are things you can do to minimize your risks.
In a PYO operation YOU are the farmer, the harvester, the handler. While most consumers would never eat berries or apples from the grocery store without washing them first, they think nothing of plucking the strawberry right off the vine and popping it in their mouth. Or they let their young children do it—a population that is more vulnerable to the worst effects of a foodborne illness.
So, what are some simple guidelines for a safer PYO experience for you and your family (and others who follow you in the field or orchard)?
Clean hands are important
Be sure to wash your hands before picking. Your farm does not have a handwash station? Complain. Especially if this farm also has an animal venue—goats to pet or llamas to feed. After visiting the animals it is especially important to wash your hands. Sanitizer does not do much good on dirty hands. You need soap and water. If sanitizer is your only option, certainly you should use it. But farms by now should know the need for both bathroom and handwash facilities for their patrons.
Don’t even think of coming here if you are sick
When I was picking raspberries a few weeks ago, a young woman in the next aisle was complaining to her companion that she did not feel well. She had a sore throat and was coughing. I moved away from her. Sick people should not be picking berries. Period.
Use clean containers
Again, if the farm does not provide clean containers, bring your own or go elsewhere. It could be as simple as lining reuseable bins or boxes with a clean plastic bag or liner for each new customer. Containers with even a few hours of accumulated juice, dirt and field debris can certainly harbor the bacteria that we really do not want to bring home with us.
Don’t pick up fruit from the ground
Again, two words: wildlife and poop. Pick berries from the vine, fruit from the tree. “Drops” always run the risk of being contaminated with microbes that can cause an illness. If you see any evidence of deer or other droppings, be sure to tell a farm employee.
Pick fruits and veggies that are in good condition
Avoid produce that has evidence of bird droppings. Rotten, moldy or produce that may have been chewed by bugs or rodents should be left on the vine. Rotten spots, cuts, and other breaks in the surface of the fruit or vegetable can be a microbe’s doorway to the inside. Handle what you pick carefully.
Leave Fido at home (and NOT in the car)
Farms do not really need another animal to worry about. Dog waste is no different from that of wildlife. Even the most conscientious owner can leave traces behind as they pick up after their dog.
And, finally, watch the kids. PYO operations are a great way to teach children where their food comes from. It gets them outdoors and provides much needed time away from touch screens. But, it is important to teach them good PYO etiquette as well. Do not let them pick up drops from the ground or eat directly off the plant and tell them why it is not a good idea. Teach them the importance of washing their hands before handling food. Feed the kids before you visit: bring a water bottle, but it is best not to eat snacks in the field. Save the picnic for later.
Please do not change diapers in the field. Remember what I said about wildlife and poop? Do that in your car and be sure to dispose of the dirty diapers in a covered trash receptacle.
For more information on safe food handling, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at email@example.com or 1-877-486-6271 or visit www.foodsafety.uconn.edu.