From Gulf-to-table to farm-to-table, the Emerald Coast is home to a wide array of locally-sourced, fresh food options that characterize the region’s celebrated cuisine. For those who like to get up close and personal with their food choices, U-pick farms exist that allow residents and visitors to harvest their own produce while making lasting memories.
Amid growing demands on our time, these options are a great way to spend time with family and friends, buy healthy food, enjoy the outdoors and support local business owners at the same time. While Northwest Florida’s temperate climate allows for year-round growing, March kicks off an active U-pick season and a prime opportunity to land a variety of fresh, locally-sourced crops.
Best of all, healthy food is only a small piece of the equation. Here are five reasons you might want to consider putting on your straw hat, grabbing a bucket and getting your hands a little dirty.
1. Buying from U-Pick farms supports the local economy.
Unlike grocery store produce which passes through numerous hands on its way to you, local U-Pick farms reduce the number of people who must handle these foods. Those who do handle the foods are locals themselves, so your money stays in the area and passes through the workers’ hands on its way to potentially support other nearby businesses.
2. Visiting U-Pick farms lands you outdoors.
Research indicates that outdoor activity boosts your energy and your immune system. Studies also suggest being outdoors can lower your blood pressure and improve your mood. Additionally, the human body produces much-needed Vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight for limited periods of time.
3. U-Pick farms provide healthier food options.
Locally-grown foods are fresher and healthier because they aren’t shipped thousands of miles to their ultimate destination. Given that fruits and vegetables gradually lose nutrients from the moment they are picked, local produce is more nutrient-dense than that of large-chain grocery stores.
4. U-Pick farms can save you money.
Buying organic produce at the grocery store can be expensive, and U-Pick farms can be cheaper than farmers’ markets or other alternatives. The “unit price” tells consumers the cost per unit of weight for produce. Many U-Pick farms provide their unit price on their social media pages and other sources. It’s possible, too, to freeze or preserve extra produce if you buy large quantities during your visit.
5. U-Pick farms make seasonal eating easier.
Food grown locally can be harvested at the peak of ripeness because it won’t travel far to its ultimate destination. It’s also sold during the same season. Eating seasonally helps you incorporate a wide variety of foods into your diet and, as a result, a broader range of vitamins and minerals.
Some U-Pick locations to consider: Different farms specialize in different offerings, and the growing season is always impacted by the local weather. Pickers should call ahead to verify availability and hours before visiting a farm. In addition, many U-Pick farms only accept cash or check for payment, and many sell produce even if it isn’t available to pick yourself.
Brooks Farm Produce
Located in Baker, Brooks Farm includes a variety of seasonal offerings, usually beginning around the first of March. Between its two separate locations, Brooks offers strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and tomatoes, and it also sells strawberry yogurt, milkshakes, shortcakes and a wide variety of jams.
This year’s unpredictable weather has delayed the start of the strawberry picking season, which should begin no later than mid-March and will last until the end of May. Operating hours will be Monday through Saturday, 9-5, and Sunday 11-5. Brooks Farm also hosts an egg hunt, typically on the Saturday before Easter. Call (850) 537-5373 for more information.
Love Berry Farm
Love Berry Farm in Defuniak Springs is a family-owned operation that invites visitors to pick their own blueberries and blackberries. Additionally, the farm also offers sweet corn, potatoes, squash, green beans and cucumbers, as well as a variety of hydroponic lettuces and tomatoes. The farm typically opens around the first of May and is open 7 days a week from 7 a.m. to dusk. Call (850) 582-3184 for more information.
Gainer Blueberry Farm
While Hurricane Michael left its mark on the East Panhandle, Gainer Blueberry Farm in Chipley bounced back quickly and will be ready to open around the first of June for the season. Hours of operation run 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 1-6 p.m. on Sunday. Operators accept cash and checks only. Call (850) 638-1335 for more information.