It's been a bad year for local strawberries. The harsh winter froze the ground, heavy winds damaged the fragile strawberry plants, a late Easter freeze sent shivers down the runners of the "early birds," and the May dry spell parched the patches.
An informal survey of area farmers indicated that this year's strawberry supply is not nearly enough to meet the increasing pick-your-own demand. But hordes of pickers are marching across the Maryland and Virginia countryside armed with plastic containers gathering berries with a vengeance.
"Is this Strawberry Hill Farm?" one farm owner was asked last week.
"It was " he said dejectedly, and went on to explain that his crop was so poor this year he was turning would-be berry pickers away.
It's not the best year for strawberries," said Maryland farm owner Barbara Murray. "We lost 50 per cent of the first blossoms to the cold. And now they need rain. We really can't accommodate all the people - we just can't meet the demand."
But it's been even worse for thornless blackberries. Arrowhead Farms lost it's entire crop to the freeze. Ralph Willis of Little Old England Farm said his thornless blackberry crop is "one quarter of what it should be" and asked to be excluded from any listing of pick-your-own farms.
"It's a shame," Willis said. "The severe winter was a little too rough on them."
Hand-picking fruits and vegetables has become very chic. Families who could well afford store-bought produce are trading the convenience of the supermarket for fresh fruits and vegetables being offered by the area's many pick-your-own farms. Beside the sun and savings, there is nothing sweeter than the juice of a freshly-picked strawberry, peach or vine-ripened tomato on a hot summer day.
Strawberries should be avaiable through the middle of June, but farms in the Washington area will be offering peaches, peas, plums, lettuce, grapes, greens, corn and tomatoes long after the berries are gone. A few farms will also have fresh pick-your-own Oriental vegetables such as Chinese cabbage and radishes.
Before venturing out, it is wise to call. Many farms now have recorded messages with useful information such as directions, picking conditions, availability, price, hours and days of operation and whether or not they supply containers. It is also wise to ask if children are welcome. Several farms said they did not allow children under 12 in the patches or orchards.
"They step on the plants. They step on the berries. You just can't have children in the patches," said Jane Gar such of Carrol County Eggs & Produce.
One orchard owner also complained of children playing baseball with freshly picked peaches.
For more information on Maryland and Virginia pick-your-own farms culture and Resource Economics, University of Maryland, College Park, Md. 20742 and C.C. Mayes, Virginia Dept. of Agriculture and Commerce, 203 N. Governor St. Richmond, Va. 23219.
Here is a roundup of Washington area pick-your-own farms. Apple orchards will be listed separetely in late summer. MARYLAND
E.A. Parker & Sons, Clinton (301) 292-3940; strawberries, thornies blackberries, peas, lettuce, beets, greens.
Fulks Farm Market, Gaithersburg, (301) 926-0772; strawberries.
Stegmaier Orchards, Inc., Cumberland (301) 722-5266; strawberries, raspberries, peaches.
Richard M. Stegmaier, Cumberland (301) 722-7904; strawberries, raspberries, green beans.
Butler's Orchard, Germantown (301) 972-3299; strawberries, blackberries.
Belvoir Farm, Crownsville (301) 923-2107; strawberries.
Sewell's Orchards, Columbia (301) 730-5500; strawberries, black raspberries, peas.
Cherry Hill Produce, Clinton (301) 292-4642; strawberries, peas, lima beans, okra, blackeye peas.
Carroll County Eggs & Produce, New Windsor (301) 775-7475; strawberries. No children.
William Altavar, Sharptown (301) 883-3764; strawberries, peas, corn tomatoes, peppers, greens.
Groton & Wanex, East New Market (301) 943-3468; strawberries, peas, string beans.
Herbert T. Martin, Westminster (301) 848-7312; strawberries. Closed Sunday. No children under 12.
Leo Frase, Preston (301) 673-7249; strawberries, peas, cantaloupes, tomatoes.
Pleasant Hill, Davidsonville (301) 956-3620; strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes. No one under 18.
Kenneth Simpson, Mitchelville (301) 390-6097; strawberries.
John Yerkie, Aquasco (301) 579-2380; strawberries. No children under 12.
Vessey Orchards, Westover (301) 957-1454; strawberries, assorted fruits and vegetables during the summer.
George Godfrey, Sudlersville (301) 438-3501; strawberries.
Providence Farm, Preston (301) 673-7543; strawberries, pickling cucumbers.
Arrowhead Farm, Randallstown (301) 464-2277; strawberries, peaches. Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday only.
Huber's PYO Farm, Bradshaw (301) 679-1948; strawberries, greens, sweet corn, tomatoes, beets, squash, cucumbers, okra, eggplant, pumpkin, pickles.
Josef & Donann Seidel, Huntington (301) 535-2128; thornless blackberries, raspberries, grapes.
Patrick H. Murray, Bryantown, (301) 274-3235; strawberries, raspberries, peas, wax beans, cucumbers, sweet corn.
Kerby's Market, Oxon Hill (301) 567-4375; string beans, tomatoes, lima beans, squash, greens. No children.
Hough's Orchard, Dickerson (301) 972-8555; cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums.
Blythe Vineyards, La Plata (301) 934-4047; wine grapes.
Yoo Duk Farm, Beltsville (301) 572-4747; Chinese cabbage, Chinese radishes, edible chrysanthemums, lettuce, sweet chard, mustard greens. Weekends only. VIRGINIA
Patterson's Strawberry Farm, Woodford (703) 582-5241; strawberries. No children under 12. Play area provided.
Belvedere Farm, Fredericksburg, (703) 371-2323; strawberries, corn. Closed Sunday.
Rick & Van's, Fredericksburg (703) 775-7890; strawberries, peas, assorted fruits and vegetables during the summer. No children.
High Hill Orchards, Round Hill (703) 471-1448; strawberries, pre-picked sweet and sour cherries.
Potomac Vegetable Farm, Vienna (703) 759-3844; strawberries, peas.