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Posted March 3, 2017 | 10:46 AM

Hillsborough's Fields a U-Pick Paradise

Hillsborough County consumers get fruits and vegetables at peak ripeness

Hillsborough County has lots of U-Pick farms.

Strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries are plentiful in season and available to pick-your-own consumers. Other fruits and vegetables also are marketed for U-Pick, such as tomatoes, sweet corn, and peaches.

Some of the best fruits and vegetables of a growing season await those willing to stoop or stretch for them in local famers' fields. That's because end-of-season crops designated for U-Pick remain on plants longer, absorbing more nutrients that add flavor.

Farmers like Susan and Scot Dumke will be happy to see you roll up to their fields. For almost 10 years the Dumkes have welcomed U-Pick customers at their 20-acre blueberry spread, Blues Berry Farm, in Plant City, for two or three weeks beginning in mid-May.

U-Pick is a great way for farmers to sell fruit and vegetables after work crews have gathered most of the crop. It's a win-win situation: Farmers save on labor and shipping costs, and consumers get the freshest produce at low prices.

"I like to share the farm," Susan says. "And there's just so much fruit out in the field."

Many U-Pick participants - children and adults - get their first direct exposure to food production, growing seasons, and the unpredictable nature of farming.

Large commercial strawberry farms have not substantially increased the scope of their U-Pick operations in the last five or 10 years, says Tiffany Dale of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. But more small farms - 5 acres or less - devoted primarily to U-Pick are appearing.

Individuals, families, out-of-state visitors, and groups from churches and schools stop at the U-Pick fields. Bring a hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, comfortable shoes, and a bucket if your farm of choice doesn't provide containers. Susan also suggests bringing a cooler, to keep your produce in good condition on the ride home. And she says it's a good idea to call the farm beforehand, to ensure it is open to U-Pickers when you arrive.

Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has more information about picking your own fruits and vegetables, including locations of some U-Pick farms in Hillsborough County and throughout the state.

After you fill buckets and your car trunk with fresh Hillsborough County produce, what then? With many strawberry fields opening to the public in mid-March, followed by blueberry U-Pick season in mid-May, the timing is right to learn how to use the produce you gather.

Hillsborough County's UF/IFAS Extension can help. Visit their website for information on locally grown produce and how to preserve it.