Sarene Marshall is the managing director of The Nature Conservancy’s global climate change program. This is part 3 of her series on the importance of eating locally produced food. If you missed them, here’s your chance to read Waiting for Asparagus and Grow Your Own.

In my last blog, I posted on how home or community gardening can be an easy route to eating locally. Still think all this planting is too much work? Try out a pick-your-own farm. Even for those of us that can or do grow some of our own items, there are probably limits to what we can accomplish. I draw the line at growing fruit. For one, most fruit grows on trees, and trees need more space and more sun than my yard can offer. And between diseases and insects, fruit can be hard to grow (especially if you are away at an office all day), so I leave the job to experts. But when the crops are ready for picking, my family is there – eager to load up our baskets and bags with as much as we can carry.

These outings have become great seasonal traditions built around different phases of fruit-picking – family trips that get us outdoors, moving around, and involved in a joint quest for a stash of the season’s best. As a side benefit, they are great educational opportunities for our young children, who’ve been “helping” on these journeys since they were in Baby Bjorns.

While most people celebrate Mothers’ Day with brunch reservations, we head to a local strawberry farm for some of the first sweet fruits of the year. Yes, I said sweet. Unlike a grocery store berry that bears a white center and needs to be enhanced with sugar or other sweeteners, its fresh-picked cousin is ruby red to its core, juicy and bursting with flavor. Slice them up, eat them on cereal, toss them into smoothies, or bake them into muffins or pies.

Come summer, we venture out to peach orchards or blueberry farms. Sure, many of us see these things on grocery shelves all winter. But – at that time of year, they’ve probably been shipped thousands of miles from someplace like Chile and don’t come close to the flavor of those picked at their peak of ripeness. The peaches we picked last summer were so juicy that my husband declared “you could put a straw in these!” When was the last time you described a grocery store peach that way?

Now, you are probably thinking that, since they don’t have a very long shelf life, you can only pick a small quantity of berries or peaches. So, it may surprise you to learn that our family of four picked 38 pounds of strawberries and 44 pounds of peaches last year, and we didn’t throw any away. Our secret? Freezing!

Freezing fresh-picked produce at its peak of ripeness locks in flavor. I know, I sound like a commercial. But, honestly, stashing away some of these summer beauties gives you access right at home to sweet, local fruit all year long. The best freezing method is “IQF” (individually quick frozen): set individual berries or peach slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Once frozen, transfer them to a large freezer container. By freezing them individually first, your fruit does not turn into a frozen brick, and you can take out just a few at a time, making them last all winter. There is no better way to be transported back to summer than whipping up a berry and peach smoothie or ladling these gems over pound cake.

In the fall, our “fruit outing” is apple picking. The kids have so much fun venturing to an orchard on a crisp fall day and scouting apples high up in trees. Apples, unlike summer fruits, can last months and months in the refrigerator, so no need to freeze. We picked 100 pounds last fall, and after eating dozens and dozens, making homemade applesauce, baking them into pies and with chickens, we still have a few left.

It’s easy to find a pick-your-own farm or orchard on the Internet. Once you’ve found one, just be sure to call ahead to check on availability, since weather and other growing conditions can affect when the fruit is ripe and ready. Pack a picnic lunch and plan on spending the day connecting with nature, getting to know the farmers in your vicinity, and enjoying the “fruits” of your labor!

(Image: Apple picking in Canada. Image credit: bensonkua/Flickr via a Creative Commons license.)

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