KENNEWICK — Whether it’s plucking sun-warmed cherries from the tree or gently tugging blueberries from the bush, gathering your own food can satisfy the hunter/gatherer in all of us.
“There’s something extra special about going out and gleaning, gaining your own fruits and vegetables,” said Suzanne Sullivan of Berry Blue Farms in Burbank.
Her family has six acres of blueberries growing on a slope leading down to the Snake River. For the past three years they’ve invited the public to come out and pick their own berries. It’s an offer only a handful of growers make.
The French family is another. They’ve have opened their Ray French Orchard to the public for U-picking for decades.
“It didn’t start out that way,” said Robin French of Richland.
His father, Ray French, started planting fruit trees in 1961 intending his crop to go to the commercial market. What he discovered was his crop wasn’t big enough to make money commercially.
“So he decided to sell our fruit right off the tree,” Robin said. “That was in the mid-1970s.”
His dad is deceased but Robin and his wife, Sandra, are carrying on the U-pick tradition and so are their customers.
“Some of our older customers either can’t get out into the orchard anymore, or in some cases they’ve died. But their children are still coming and picking,” Robin said. “They enjoy picking their own cherries, peaches, nectarines and apples.”
In fact, some insist on it.
“Last year we put cherries out for people to buy but they didn’t want them. They wanted to pick their own,” he said.
And the Frenches have found over the years that U-pickers are a dedicated group.
“We have some regular customers who live in Texas but time their visits to family here when the peaches are ripe,” said Sandra French. “Others come from Utah, Florida, even from Siberia. Sure, they’re visiting family but they come here for the fruit.”
The Frenches also sell a portion of their fruit commercially, but the income they receive from selling it directly off the tree is welcome.
“We won’t get rich, but it pays the bills,” said Robin French. “U-pick gives us cash flow.”
In commercial farming, he explained, it’s not unusual for payments to be delayed for months.
“I think that alone makes U-pick as attractive as anything,” Robin said.
Roger McGuire of Kennewick joined the small group growers offering U-pick accidentally.
“About three years ago he planted raspberries along one edge of our three and a quarter acres,” said his wife, Cindy. “We had no idea how much they’d produce, and keep producing.”
“I couldn’t keep up with the picking and we became so tired of raspberries. I made all the jelly, pies and stuff we needed and started giving them away,” she said. “When friends began to lock their doors we asked Second Harvest (Tri-Cities) if they wanted to come and pick them for the food banks.”
This year Roger, who’s now retired, is offering the berries to U-pickers.
“He’s not out to make money. He asks just enough for the berries to give them value to the pickers and to help pay for any upkeep the berries need,” she said. “And that’s been working out good.”
“My part is to go out and talk to them,” she said.
Not everyone is able to get out to orchards, farms and berry patches to pick their own produce.
“But if so, it’s a great way to get good, fresh, tree-ripened fruit at a real bargain if you’re willing to invest some time,” said Robin French. “We try to keep prices at least half of what they are in stores.”