Field Trip: Swanton Berry Farm

While most of the 650 was sweltering through another 90-something-degree day this week, I decided to make a run for cooler temperatures on the coast. It was actually perfect timing to check off a couple of items on my Summer Bucket List: lunch at eco-resort Costanoa, followed by a short trip over the San Mateo county line for strawberry picking at Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport.

Strawberry plants in the sun at Swanton Berry Farm
Strawberry plants in the sun at Swanton Berry Farm

Why spend a couple of hours in a dusty field along the coast of Santa Cruz county when I could find local, organic berries at my neighborhood grocery store or farmers’ market? Sure the market is convenient, but you can’t get fresher berries than those you pick yourself. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to directly support a local, organic farm.

I was thinking, as I was wandering through the rows of berry plants, that u-pick benefits both the farm and the consumer. Consumers have an opportunity to pick the freshest organic berries at a reasonable price, and the farm can reduce the costs of labor and transporting the berries to market. Not to mention that it’s a nice summer outing for families — and an opportunity to teach your kids about where strawberries come from and the work that goes into producing them.

You can bring your own containers and head right to the field, or stop in to the Farmstand shop where you can pick up cardboard boxes to hold your berries. There’s not much to know about picking strawberries — common sense is pretty much all you need. Be gentle with the plants and only pick berries that are completely red; that means turning berries over to check that they’re fully ripe. While one side might be beautifully red, the other might still be green. Strawberries don’t ripen after you pick them, which is why you want to pick berries that are completely red, from stem to tip and front to back.

Turn berries over and look at the tips to make sure they’re fully ripe

Berries that aren’t red from stem to tip won’t have as much flavor, so leave them and move on to other plants. Trust me, there are plenty of ripe berries, if you have some patience and are willing to look. Swanton works on the honor system when it comes to berry picking. Once you’ve picked your fill, head back to the Farmstand, where you’ll weigh your berries, calculate the cost, and pay at the “honor station” at the counter.

Swanton says that they have fewer berries than usual for this time of year due to the drought, but I found plenty. It’s easy to get in a groove and end up with more berries than you anticipated. Somehow I always do this  — I was going for five pounds and ended up going home with seven.

Approximately 3.5 pounds of berries
Approximately 3.5 pounds of berries — but wait, there’s more…

As soon as I got home, I did a “sort and separate”:

  • Berries without stems (they won’t last as long without their stems)
  • Berries that are verging on overripe and/or have a bit of damage (again, they have a shorter lifespan)
  • Berries that have a bit of a green on the tip (yeah, somehow I got a few of those); they may or may not be flavorful
  • Berries that are beautifully red from stem to tip (most of the berries)

Basically, I want to get any soft, stemless, damaged, and very ripe berries out of the mix because they’ll deteriorate more quickly and can potentially cause mold problems with the rest of the berries. Once I finished sorting, I lined the boxes with foil and then two layers of paper towels and arranged the berries in a single layer in each box. (You can also use a sheet pan or shallow, plastic food bin.) I put the boxes (uncovered) on the top shelf of my fridge where they’ll stay for a day or so until I get everything prepped for freezing.

Berries need cool storage temps (about 35ºF) and high humidity. You’ll also want to make sure that they have some room for airflow, which is why you should store them in a single layer. The paper towels will absorb moisture, which should minimize the potential for mold. Oh, and one very important tip to extend the shelf-life of your berries: don’t wash them or remove the stems until you’re ready to use them. Want to know more? This comprehensive article from UC Davis gives good information about choosing, cleaning, and storing strawberries.

So what am I going to do with all of those luscious, red berries? I’ll use the very ripe and stemless berries first. As for the rest, I’ll keep some in the refrigerator for breakfast and snacking, but most I’ll freeze for future projects. Here are a few ideas I’m working on already:

  • Cut the very ripe berries into dice and mix with leftover sorbet syrup and fresh mint from my garden for a simple dessert
  • Make Strawberries Romanov (cut strawberries into dice, mix with sugar and Grand Marnier) as a topping for Orange Sorbet
  • Purée berries for strawberry sherbet or ice cream
  • Make a salad with fresh lettuce from my garden, strawberries, and feta

Then there are the frozen berries that I’ll hold back for baked treats (mmm, strawberry crisp) and possibly my first attempt at freezer jam. Fortunately, Swanton’s u-pick for strawberries runs until September or October, so I might just have to pace myself.berries-close

Have you been to Swanton to pick your own berries?

What: Swanton Berry Farm U-Pick
Where: 25 Swanton Road, Davenport, CA 95017
Parking: Farmstand lot and u-pick field
Phone: 831-469-8804
Hours: Every day, 8am-8pm
Price: U-pick organic strawberries: $3/pound; Farmstand treats and baked goods: prices vary

Tip: Swanton’s Coastaways Ranch location in Pescadero will be open for u-pick ollalieberries in July. Mark your calendar.

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