It’s an any-day-now situation for the opening of the locally grown strawberry season.

As their 2020 berry crops reach tantalizing maturity, the region’s U-pick farms are gearing up for their annual onslaught of visitors.

The berry-picking crowd will be pleased to hear that this year’s growing conditions have been favorable.

“It’s looking good,” said Nancy Jacobson of Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, which has been running a strawberry U-pick operation since 1982 and currently has 15 acres of berries under cultivation. “We didn’t suffer winter weather damage, which can be a worry, and we’ve had some really big blossoms out there.”

Fragrant, tender, juicy strawberries, here we come.

Let’s face facts: Minnesota is not an ideal environment for strawberry cultivation, although the region’s producers make a good go of it.

“We grow for flavor,” said Jacobson. “The varieties that we choose to grow in Minnesota are not chosen for their shipability, or their size. It’s flavor, that’s the most important thing. Plus, you’re harvesting a berry right at the moment when it should be harvested. It doesn’t have to endure traveling thousands of miles from California or Chile.”

Take the word of another expert.

“Don’t get me wrong, the strawberries from other places are still good,” said Nolan Greene, produce manager at the Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis. “But the local ones have that little extra zhuzh of flavor. Strawberries that are shipped tend to lose some of that potency. And it’s extra special because the growing season here is so short.”

Consider this: If the state’s strawberries aren’t always quite as sweet as their southern-raised counterparts, that trait is a blessing in disguise, because it makes them ideal candidates for pies and preserves.

There are nearly 20 U-pick strawberry operations within an hour’s drive of the Twin Cities.

Once you get strawberries home, consider a few storage tips. Don’t remove the green caps. Discard any bruised or moldy berries. Rinse them in cold water, but only just before eating.

Strawberries should be stored in the refrigerator. If placed in a single layer on a paper towel inside an airtight container, refrigerated strawberries will last three to four days.

At the supermarket, locally grown berries usually can’t compete, pricewise, against their giant national and international competitors.

But for those looking to satisfy their peak-season strawberry cravings in a supermarket, there’s another reason to buy local: That transaction boosts the state’s economy.

“You’re supporting a family farm versus a large corporation,” said Jared Niven, produce manager at Lakewinds Food Co-op in Richfield, who keeps his department stocked with strawberries from Featherstone Farm in Rushford, Minn.

“I know the farmer who sells us strawberries,” he said. “I’ve known him for 20 years. I’ve been to his farm several times and I know the methods he’s using. I trust him, I care about his family, and I want his farm to exist. I can’t say that about a large agribusiness.”

Coronavirus restrictions

Just as shoppers have become accustomed to COVID-19-related changes in supermarkets and restaurants, U-pickers will have to adjust to a different set of rules for the 2020 season.

Look for hand-washing stations, and expect farms to limit the number of people in the fields. Visitors will be asked to wear masks and follow strict social-distancing rules. Some farms are temporarily banning young children. No sampling, either, and don’t look to farms to sell beverages or other supplies.

“We’re so used to having families come here for picking, and for having picnics and gatherings,” said Rachel Kedem of Sam Kedem Nursery & Garden in Hastings, which has been cultivating a few acres of strawberries for nearly 15 years. “But that’s not allowed this year. This year, it’s just picking fresh organic strawberries, and going home.”

Which isn’t the worst tragedy to befall berry lovers. The prospect of “fresh organic strawberries,” along with fresh air and sunshine, are powerful motivators.

Jacobson offers a valuable piece of advice for U-pickers.

“Go to your favorite farm’s website,” she said. “Everyone will have posted their COVID-19 updates. It’s going to be different this year, but it’s nothing that’s insurmountable. It all seems very doable. I love the fact that people are harvesting their own food. The sounds, the smells, the sunshine, it’s a special thing.”

These U-pick strawberry farms are within roughly an hour’s drive of the Twin Cities. Call before visiting to confirm hours and availability.

Minnesota

Anoka: Berry Hill Farm, 6510 185th Av. NW., 763-753-5891, berryhillfarm.com

Cambridge: Windmill Acres Pumpkin Patch, 34365 Hupp St. NE., 763-238-7855

Clear Lake: Grayson’s Berryland, 6705 County Road 8, 1-320-743-3384, graysonsberryland.com

Faribault: Straight River Farm, 3733 220th St. E., 1-507-334-2226, straightriverfarm.com

Forest Lake: The Berry Patch, 10456 192nd St., 651-433-3448, berrypatchmn.com

Hastings: Afton Apple Orchard, 14421 S. 90th St., 651-436-8385, aftonapple.com

Hastings: Sam Kedem Nursery & Garden, 12414 191st St. E., 651-437-7516, kedemgarden.com

Hastings: Wyatt’s Strawberries, 10370 180 St. E., 651-437-8479

Monticello: The Strawberry Basket, 12591 Aetna Av. NE., 763-878-2875, strawberrybasket.com

North Branch: Rod’s Berry Farm, 28264 Zodiac St. NE., 651-674-4172, rodsberryfarm.com

Northfield: Lorence’s Berry Farm, 28556 Foliage Av., 1-507-645-9749, lorencesberryfarm.com

Nowthen: Nowthen Berries, 21121 Nowthen Blvd. NW., 763-843-5793, nowthenberries.com

St. Michael: D Round Barn Berries, 2260 Jamison Av. NE., 612-237-8443, droundbarnberries.com

Waconia: Klingelhutz Farm, 7940 Airport Road, 952-807-2711, klingelhutzfarm.com

White Bear Lake: Pine Tree Apple Orchard, 450 Apple Orchard Road, 651-429-7202, pinetreeappleorchard.com

 

Western Wisconsin

Glenwood City: Green Hill Farm, 3234 140th Av., 715-441-6517 or 715-441-6039

Menomonie: Red Cedar Valley Farms, N4439 410th St., 715-235-9411, rcvf.com

River Falls: White Pine Berry Farm, 1482 Oak Drive, 715-222-2946, whitepineberryfarm.com