U-pick berry operations are on the decline as people increasingly shift away from their agricultural past. It's much more convenient to buy some little wooden baskets or cardboard crates of berries already plucked by someone else.
For convenience and even Midwestern thrift, I do that myself. But every June in those days when I was growing up on the farm, my neighbor Bill Bertram would go pick his own strawberries.
I couldn't understand why. But then the other day as hiking along a lush river, I found a rare wild strawberry plant, its fruit as red and fat as a thumb that's been hit by a hammer and weighing heavy on the bush. As the heat of sun warmed my cheek, I delicately turned the fruit over in my hand and started thinking of it plopped atop shortcake or ice cream, crushed into jam spread across toast and stuffed with dozens of others in a warm pie. Had I a little sugar to sprinkle atop the berry, I might very well have plucked and eaten it.
Finding a wild strawberry is whole different matter from working your way through a patch in the blazing sun and humidity, though. Even Bill said getting to the patch during the early morning, when the air remained cool and the sun hadn't fully ascended in the east, was best.
Still, he usually got a child-like glimmer in his eyes whenever talking of strawberry picking, as if somehow getting in the dirt again was like regaining his innocence. No, it wasn't his innocence so much as his sense of wonder and discovery, which also runs deep in our human roots.
After all, we need to question and experiment to survive.
One of the great discoveries of those growing strawberries in Iowa is that our berries tend to be sweeter than those from the West or South. Blame it on our extremes in temperatures. Strawberries prefer moderate temps that don't hover far from the 60s.
Our extremes also make for better berry picking. Some u-pick operations spread corn stalks and mulch around the plants to survive winter, which in summer keep our shoes from sinking into the wet dirt.
Plucking strawberries, like staying on the straight and narrow, is no easy task, Bill always said, but it's worth it.
So many of our morals and values derive from agricultural societies that existed for millennia. Some ponder why modern man has turned his back on those beliefs.
I'd suggest it's not the devil's work but a cultural shift. Not so long ago, most Americans and Europeans worked on farms; these days, farmers are a small minority of the population.
So what happens when we turn from the soil and the barn to the asphalt and the office? What happens when our hands do not raise and can the food we consume but instead labor in other endeavors so that we don't know how milk comes to be in a plastic jug or peas in a tin can? Can the phrase "milk and honey" mean as much when one never has to worry about its availability?
This weekend, I'm heading to a strawberry patch to find out.
(originally published June 12, 2005)