Are U-Pick Farms a Waste of Money? We Decided to Find Out

published Oct 24, 2014
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(Image credit: Michaela Cisney)

I remember fingertips stained strawberry red, hay bits stuck on kneecaps from kneeling on strawberry beds, small brown shoulders hot with summer while I balanced a half-empty crate, cramming my mouth with perfectly ripe berries. I remember the orchard every autumn: watching my dad pick the tree-top apples for my mom; inhaling the sharp cider-scent of rotting apples scattered beneath trees; casting sideways glances at the hornets hovering.

Do these romantic memories of picking fruit at a farm still have relevance to the modern grown-up budget? And do U-pick farms make any economic sense to those of us watching our grocery pennies? I took a trip out to the country to find out.

(Image credit: Michaela Cisney)

The Romantic Childhood Memories of U-Pick Farms

My memories of harvesting strawberries come from my middle years; my earliest years were also spent harvesting, but from the other side of the farm: as daughter of the farmer.

But when I left home for college, I said goodbye to the U-pick days because I’m too busy (I tell myself), and buying from the farms would be nice (I rationalize), but that’s a luxury that my student budget can’t accommodate.

There are plenty of people who argue that U-pick farms are not a good deal. The most memorable (and quoted) is probably this piece in Slate:

(Image credit: Michaela Cisney)
(Image credit: Michaela Cisney)

Can U-Pick Farms Be a Good Deal? I Decided to Find Out.

But I started to wonder: maybe U-pick farms are still worth it for the budget shopper. Or are maybe they’re really just relics for idealistic middle-class families yearning for simpler days and a chance to share with their small children the countryside romance of plucking sun-warmed apples straight from the tree.

Last week, I hopped in my car and headed north to the nearest U-pick farm. I parked and opened my door to the very heady scent of very ripe apples. Maybe it was the light, hazy with straw dust; maybe it was the rows and rows of perfect little gourds; maybe it was the familiar sharp smell of the rotting apples beneath acres of trees, hornets hovering; maybe it was the coolers of fresh cider and jars of farm preserves.

My skepticism melted.

(Image credit: Michaela Cisney)

5 Reasons to Go to a U-Pick Farm

U-Pick farms don’t always make full economic sense; they are not always cheaper than your grocery store or other kinds of farm stands. But going out to the farm reminded me that there are still some good reasons (and good deals!) to keep you going out to the country.

Here are five reasons that came to mind on my excursion this week.

1. The price is perfect.

A peck of apples is about 10 to 12 pounds, so at my U-pick farm the price of apples was about a dollar or a little less per pound—cheaper than both local and chain grocery stores. Gourds and squash were one dollar each.

Not every farm has such good deals, but I’ve found that more often than not, you’re going to find the best prices on bulk produce at the farm itself.

2. It’s easy to support your local farming economy.

I would have easily overlooked steeper prices to support my local economy and to know exactly how and where my food was grown. But I was pleasantly surprised: buying local was kinder on my wallet than purchasing imported, and the feel-good glow of doing so was all there.

3. Canners and bakers can find what they need.

Bulk prices and deals are much easier to find at U-pick farms, and apple varieties are so diverse you can usually find the perfect type for your product. The produce is fresh, the taste is on point, and if you don’t have time to pick your own, most farms offer every variety pre-picked and on display.

4. Free therapy.

There is something incredibly therapeutic about harvesting your own food, taking those giant gulps of apple-scented air, running your fingers over the smooth hard shell of a pumpkin, forgetting your complicated urban life.

5. $3 apple turnovers!

Technically not a universal takeaway point, but seriously—three dollar glazed apple turnovers topped with vanilla ice cream? I ate two. And while I sat on an empty flatbed truck behind a stack of crates and beside a row of apple trees, hornets hovering, ice cream and cinnamon and steaming apples melting on my tongue, I knew then that my heart was forever lost to the U-pick farm.

And the only way you’ll know if your local U-pick farm sells $3 glazed apple turnovers is if you drive up to visit and find out for yourself.

(Image credit: Michaela Cisney)

What’s your experience with shopping U-pick farms? Is it worth it for you?