A Fabulous Array of Fresh Produce

Whether it is spring, summer or autumn, ‘Pick Your Own Farms’ have now become part of life in the English countryside.

Monica Nicholls

A Fabulous Array of Fresh Produce

Springtime and we wait patiently for the farm’s website to announce ‘Asparagus – Now Picking’ and off we go to gather the year’s first produce. Home again, cook for three minutes and serve immediately perhaps with a little Hollandaise sauce or just a pat of best butter. Delicious.

Pick Your Own farms (PYO) have, in the past decade, become part of our English countryside. Maybe we only go two or three times during a growing season or maybe we make it a weekly event . Probably the most frequent weekday customers are the retired people but once Saturday or Sunday comes then it becomes a family affair. Children come with their parents and help pick if they are old enough or, if not, then most large PYO farms have play facilities of a kind for them. One smaller farm has a static old tractor for them to jump on and play at pretend farming.

As the Spring turns into Summer and then to Autumn so the varieties of produce available for picking change from week to week. For example, soon after the asparagus season finishes, and it only lasts two or three weeks, then along comes rhubarb and then as May turns into June and July, so the availability of fruits and vegetables become plentiful. There will now be strawberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, raspberries, and for the vegetable selection, spinach, mangetout, carrots, broad beans, courgettes, marrows, french beans, and runner beans (sometimes called kidney beans). A fabulous array of fresh produce for the kitchen table.

With the coming of August followed by September so plums, greengages, blackberries, apples and pears are added to farm websites. October brings to a close the season for PYO farms, the final crop is usually the pumpkins of varying sizes which are collected for Halloween, a festival which seems to have recently grown from the American influence on our present day lives. However, we do appreciate how lucky we are in this country to have the choice of so much fresh nourishing goodness nearby.

Historically fruit and vegetables have long been shared, gardeners with allotments producing a glut of produce would always offer some to neighbours and friends. Farmers, who for one reason or another had no labour to harvest their produce, would invite local people to come and pick. People were invited to pay a small amount of money and glean the fields after a harvest.

Annually, people of London’s East End went for their summer holidays to the Hop fields of Kent, children were taken with them and they earned money out in fresh air. But it was the arrival of the enormous supermarkets in the eighties and nineties needing to buy their produce in huge quantities that led to the demise of small arable farms. These supermarkets, Tescos, Sainburys Asda and later Waitrose, Marks & Spencer Food Stores and more recently, Lidl and Aldi all need to buy from large specialist concerns wherever in the world these producers may be. Their labels must, however, state the country of origin and nowadays not only are the labels stating countries in the European Union but countries as far afield as Peru, Guatemala, South Africa and Kenya to name just a few.

During the seventies and eighties the small farms, although still supplying the few greengrocery shops left on the high streets, were struggling to survive. It was no longer possible to run them as profitable businesses. During the eighties and nineties sons and daughters were inheriting these small farms and having to make life changing decisions as to whether they should sell up to the large specialising companies, sell the land for building if they were near urban areas or try something different.

It was in these times that people were becoming aware of the dangers of pesticides used in growing fruit and vegetables and it was not possible to know for sure what had been used in the imported fresh foods from far away countries.

The growing need for food to be organically grown was becoming popular but it was far more expensive to produce. Soon it became obvious that people were prepared to pay a little more for this kind of food, supermarkets began stocking small quantities of organic food at this time. And they now knew that the fresher the food, the more nutrients it contained. Nowadays there is also the green issue and we are told that if it is possible to buy your food that has been grown within 30 miles of your home then you should do so.

The idea that people could enjoy coming to the fields of these small farms, picking their produce, paying for it and having it all in their home on the same day as it was picked became desirable. So the inheritors of these small farms, who wanted to carry on with farming but a new kind of farming, turned their fields into various sized strips, and planted fruit trees. They made pathways for people’s cars and manned small kiosks for produce to be weighed and paid for, and also signposted the way to take to the various growing areas.

And what a boon the computer has been, instead of telephoning we are now all able to visit the websites of our local PYO farms and see what produce is available each day. Many of the farmers inherited large barns and this enable them to set up a shop to sell local produce, you can find honey, chutneys, breads, pies and cheeses on the shelves. Some of the bigger farms have also turned these buildings into cafes where customers can relax and have tea, coffee and light lunches. Many customers living in urban areas are happy to drive 20 or 30 miles to these farms and often consider it a day out in the country, enjoying a lunch and returning home with a car full of good fresh fruit and veg to eat.

On a personal level, the main strawberry crop has always coincided with, yes Wimbledon. Off we go in the morning, pick a few punnets of strawberries, invite some friends round, turn on the television ...”Come on Andy”.


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