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Thursday, June 5, 2003 02:20 pm

Berried treasure

It’s strawberry season at pick-your-own orchards

art225

When I was growing up, as soon as school was out for the summer, my mother and I would head for our neighbor's farm to pick strawberries in the early morning hours. I remember scouting for the reddest, juiciest berries, like prize jewels hidden among the dainty white flowers and green leaves of the plants. Each one was carefully considered before placing it in our pail. Puny, yellow, and not-quite-ripe berries were passed over. We sometimes found ones that looked perfect, but were in fact bruised or rotting on the side hidden by the soil. For several hours, we would act like treasure hunters--quickly working our hands over the rows, not stopping until our pails were full and our hands stained with juice.

Despite the few aches and pains that follow, picking my own strawberries is still an activity I relish this time of year. The patches may change, but the pleasure derived in the early morning of a cloudy summer day is worth a few backaches. (Overcast mornings are the best time for picking--berries plucked during the heat of the day become soft, are easily bruised, and will not keep well.) Nothing beats starting the day in a ripe strawberry field, heady with the smell of the heart-shaped fruit. Strawberries--which have more vitamin C than citrus--are one of summer's sweetest treats.

Many who share my enthusiasm for this yearly ritual show up at Wayne and Pat Eigenbrod's Mason City home, where people of all ages can be found bending over and kneeling between the seemingly endless rows of ripe, red strawberries. The Eigenbrods operate one of several local "U-Pick" strawberry farms. It's been about 20 years since Wayne Eigenbrod planted his first acre of strawberries by hand. Even with the help of a few employees, an irrigation system, and modern machinery, the three-week peak picking season is still the product of his hard work.

A larger-than-life painting of a crimson strawberry advertises the Eigenbrods' business, enticing customers to drive the few miles down a country road. The place is hard to miss: The big white barn sports sizable strawberries painted on its green-shingled roof. The couple usually greets customers by golf cart, which they use to transport pickers back and forth to the patch.

A farmer of 40 years, Wayne Eigenbrod says the idea of planting something besides corn and beans was prompted in the 1980s, when the government urged farmers to diversify. So he planted his first acre of strawberries behind one of the several white buildings surrounding the farmhouse. The next year, he planted another acre. Two acres were added the following year. The Eigenbrods now have eight acres of strawberries, which has all been handed over to customers to pick their own.

There's a science involved in growing the best berries. After Thanksgiving, Wayne starts laying straw mulch down, between rows and around the plants, after they've gone dormant, to protect them from harsh winter wind and temperatures. Strawberry plants usually last three or four years, but some are replaced after just one season. The irrigation system helps, "especially at getting berry plants started, and it's good for frost protection," Wayne says. "You can lose your whole crop in one night, between 4 and 6 a.m., when the temperature gets down--that's when you turn the irrigation on. You freeze the water on the plants, it gives off thermal heat, and you have to keep the water on them to protect them," he explains. Not surprisingly, Wayne says, the hardest part remains weeding.

U-Pick Strawberry Farms

EigenbrodÕs, 7397 N CR 3800 E, Mason City (217-452-3694).
The Berry Patch, 11471 Lynn Road, Buffalo Hart (217-364-5606; www.the-berry-patch.com).
Jeffries Orchard, five miles north of Springfield off Route 29 on Jeffries Road (217-487-7582; www.geocities.com/jeffriesorchard).
Broom Orchard, 12803 Broom Road, Carlinville (217-854-3514). Eckert Orchards, Inc., 951 S. Greenmount Road, Belleville (618-233-0513; www.eckerts.com).

Note: Midwestern strawberries peak during June, and Illinois crops are ready at various times of the month depending on the part of the state. Local producers urge customers to call ahead to check on picking status.

Strawberry Banana Power Shake

1 cup skim milk
3 tablespoons wheat germ
1 tablespoon strawberry jam
1/2 cup sliced strawberries
1 small very ripe banana
4 ice cubes

Place all ingredients in a blender; blend on high speed until smooth. Makes 2 servings.

Strawberry Salsa

1 cup coarsely chopped strawberries
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
1 green onion, finely chopped, top included
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
2 tablespoons dried currants
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Chill, serve with grilled chicken or fish. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Strawberry and Spinach Salad

1 pint fresh strawberries
2 bunches fresh spinach
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons minced green onion
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup balsamic or cider vinegar
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Wash strawberries under cool running water. Remove caps and set aside to drain. Wash spinach and remove large tough stems. Tear large leaves into small pieces. Drain. In a medium bowl combine remaining ingredients and whisk together. Slice strawberries into halves or quarters and place in a large bowl. Add dry spinach. Pour dressing over all and toss. Makes 8 servings.

Source: University of Illinois Extension Service

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