From Farm to Picnic Table

Sunday, September 27, 2009

WHY: Produce fresh off the vine, blooming orchards and a picnic on a peak.

HOW FAR: About 17 miles from start to finish, and about 30 miles from Washington.

Washington's farmers markets deliver the field-fresh goods, but buying produce directly from the farmer, in his or her own earthy milieu, has its own appeal. You can chat up the grower, hand-pick your dessert and take in the sounds and scents of active farmland.

This month, the last phase of the summer harvest and the first crops of fall are ready for the picking along a trail of Montgomery County farms. A picnicker can hop from pasture to orchard to country store and build a lunch as fresh as a peach plucked from a tree. At the end of the route is an alfresco spot with sweeping views of farms protected from the developer's bulldozer.

Montgomery County farmers are proudest of their special varieties of fruit. Others make sure their fruits aren't too lofty. "Our dwarf trees are pruned intentionally so children can reach," says Cathy Metcalf, manager of Homestead Farm in Poolesville. "You end up with big apples on a petite tree."

On a recent weekend, Cindy Crane of Reston knelt with her husband and 5-year-old son picking 40 pounds of blackberries on their annual trip to Homestead. "They'll go into the freezer or the food dryer and will last most of the year," Crane said.

For picnickers, Selby's Market, also in Poolesville, is the place for bread, beer, utensils and other basic fixings. But for condiments, snacks and other local produce, hold out for Lewis Orchards in Dickerson. The family-run apple, peach, nectarine and plum orchard has expanded its offerings into a spacious market, stocking sandwich-friendly veggies (peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.) as well as locally made salsas, mustards and award-winning Cherry Glen cheeses.

Just past Lewis Orchards is Kingsbury's Orchard, a 102-year-old patchwork of apples and peaches with sundry shades, shapes and textures. Gene Kingsbury, a federal aviation official by weekday and a peach and apple farmer by weekend, is the great-great-grandson of the orchard's founder. The eldest son is proudest of his own Kingsbury Pride white peach, a varietal he has been nurturing for more than 10 years. It's a juicy and delectable way to finish a meal.

A few miles farther is Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, worth a stop for a taste of local wines or a bottle of the winery's pinot grigio or cabernet franc. Beyond the vineyard, the forested lump of Sugarloaf Mountain looms. Its picnic tables can accommodate the spread accumulated along the way and offer welcome shade and views of a landscape slipping into fall.

-- Eliza Barclay

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