Hallelujah, it’s strawberry picking time

When I spoke with Nolan Rampey on Thursday morning, he had a Blackberry in one hand, a strawberry in the other and two shoes full of water.

He was filling an order for 25 pounds of berries at his temporarily muddy Meansville farm, the Strawberry Patch. “I’m practically under water,” he says. “It’s a sight to see.”

Rampey was laughing, though. He and partner Steven Yerkes plan to open their farm for you-pick business this Saturday, ahead of most of the competition. “But you’d better bring galoshes,” he warns, with another laugh. “With all this rain, it’s really wet.”

But hey, who wouldn’t endure a little mud to get hold of the first strawberries of the season? “Oh, yeah, they can slosh through,” Rampey says.

If you’ve ever been strawberry picking before, you understand the slightly perverse pleasure of stooping in a sunny (preferably dry) field to pluck warm, red berries peeking out from under green leaves—all the while breathing in the sweetness around you and swatting at bees. You’ll probably be tempted to sample a few berries as you go, and that’s OK. Like many you-pick strawberry farms in this part of the world, the 3½ -acre Strawberry Patch keeps its is use of artificial chemicals to a minimum. “We’re called naturally grown because we don’t spray,” Rampey explains. “But we put a fungicide in the soil before we plant.”

Rhonda Fowler, who is starting her third season  at the Stockbridge location of Cottle Strawberry Farm, says she’s never seen the farmers use any chemicals after the picking season begins. “It’s just us out here, and we never spray,” she says.

If the sun cooperates, Cottle’s Stockbridge and Fayetteville locations will open next Friday, April 8, and Fowler is just as excited about the berries as anyone. “At the beginning of the season they’re huge, because they’ve had a long time to ripen,” she says. “And it’s just a fun time of year. We’re outside all day, we make new friends every year and we see some of the same people come back. It’s like going to a two-month camp and being away from home.”

Strawberry season reminds her of her youth, with one grown-up exception. “Every year, I say I’m going to make a big thing of strawberry dacquiris,” she says. “But we work 12-hour days, and by the time I get home, if I drank anything, I couldn’t get out of bed the next morning. So I never do.”
Maybe this will be her lucky season. “One of these years, I’m gonna do it,” she says.

Tips for strawberry picking:

•    The local strawberry season runs April through early June. It’s always wise to call first to make sure ripe berries are available for picking.
•    Bring sunscreen, water, and containers to carry home your berries. Most farms supply containers for picking but charge a fee to take them off the property.
•    Most farms use some chemicals on their plants or in their fields. If you are concerned about growing practices, just ask.

These pick-your-own strawberry farms are all within about an hour’s drive of Atlanta:

Adams Farm
1486 Georgia Highway 54 West, Fayetteville, 770-461-9395. Opening day: April 2. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed on holidays and for inclement weather. $1.70 per pound you pick $2.35 per pound they pick (approximately 5 pounds per gallon).

Cottle Strawberry Farms

Two locations: 290 Banks Road, Fayetteville, 770-719-2600. 4830 E Fairview Road, Stockbridge, 770-761-7822. Projected opening day April 8 or 9 (call first to confirm). 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 12 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. $11 per gallon you-pick; $13 per gallon they pick.
623 Poplar Road, Dallas, 770-443-0292. Open in mid-April. Hours vary but are generally 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday — but call first or check the latest Facebook updates to confirm. You-pick prices are $8 for a small basket (about 1/2 gallon); $12 for a large basket (about 1 gallon).
Deb-Deb’s Strawberry Farm
159 County Line Road, Jenkinsburg, 770-504-1486. Opening day: April 8. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday, but it’s always best to call first to check availability. $10 for a 5-pound bucket you-pick; $12.50 they pick.

Mitcham Farm
797 Macedonia Church Road, Oxford, 770-855-1530. Opening day: April 9. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, always call first to check availability. $10 per gallon you-pick, $12 they pick.

Red Sun Farms

1599 Vasco Adco Road, Monroe, 404-569-1199. Projected opening day: April 9 (call first to confirm. 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $8 per gallon bucket you pick; $10 they pick.
Southern Belle Farm
1658 Turner Church Road, McDonough, 770-288-2582.? Projected opening day: April 9 (call first to confirm). 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday (always call to check availability). $10 per gallon you pick, $12 per gallon they pick.
The Strawberry Patch
13888 Georgia Highway 109, Meansville, 770-709-8693, 678-588-4827. Opening day: April 2 (call first or check the Facebook page to confirm). 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday. $1.50 per pound you pick, $2.50 per pound they pick (about 5 pounds per gallon bucket).
Twin Oaks Fun Farm
1946 Johnstonville Road, Forsyth, 678-544-0756. Projected opening day: April 9 (call first). 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday. $2.50 per pound you-pick (about 5 pounds per gallon bucket), $3 per pound they pick.

Warbington Farms
5555 Crow Road, Cumming, 770-380-2920, 404-281-2433. Opening day: April 22. 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 to 6 pm. Sunday. $12 per gallon, $7 half-gallon you pick. Strawberry and bluegrass/country festival May 21, 10 a.m to 8 p.m., free. Music, hay rides, homemade strawberry ice cream, farmstand.

Washington Farms
Two locations: 270 Willowwind Drive, Loganville, 770-554-8119. 5691 Hog Mountain Rd., Bogart, 706-769-0627. Projected opening day: April 15 (check website to confirm). 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, always call or visit website to check availability. $10 per gallon you-pick, $12 they pick.

Image: Theo Weber runs his own quality assurance test at the Strawberry Patch in Meansville last May. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hankins Weber.