(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 27, 2008)
The end of July marks the beginning of grape season in Florida, and in case I forgot to circle the date on my calendar, I received a gentle reminder the other day from local grape grower Tommy Free.
"The grapes are going to be amazing this year," Tommy said. "We'll probably have twice as many fruit as last year, yet half as many places to sell them."
Free is referring to the closing of Clermont's IGA grocery, one of the few markets willing to accept locally grown produce.
"The vines are just covered with grapes this year," Tommy lamented. "I just hope we get enough pickers."
Farming is fraught with difficulties -- weather conditions, pest infestations, a shortage of workers, increasing land taxes. It's tough enough work without adding to the mix insufficient outlets for bumper crops.
I love to pick grapes, especially Florida's large, flavorful muscadine and scuppernong grapes. Every year our family looks forward to visiting Free's Lake Apshawa Road farm and nursery in Clermont. But the amount of fruit we pick -- a few shopping bags filled with the luscious bronze- and black-skinned fruit -- hardly makes a dent in the potential harvest at Free's 8-acre vineyard.
"Are you calling other people?" I asked Free.
"I've got a long list of regulars," he said. "People like yourself who come every year. But still, this year we're going to have more grapes than usual."
How fortunate we are to live in an area where locally grown produce is not only readily available, but owners of small farms and vineyards also still take the time to telephone regular customers and remind them when it's time to pick.
My friend Jennifer Baehne just finished picking a few Concord and muscadine grapes at another farm, Valley View Vineyard on State Road 455 in Howey-in-the-Hills.
"I liked the Concords best," said Baehne, who spent part of an afternoon sampling the flavors of several different grapes at the hillside farm owned by Fred and Tracey Estok. Like Free, the Estoks open their farm to fruit lovers throughout most of August. In addition to grapes, Valley View Vineyard offers peaches, figs and persimmons in season.
I've spent so many years harvesting locally grown fruit from vines, bushes and trees that I've come to think of it as a necessity instead of a luxury. It's hard to imagine having to live on a diet of grocery store produce without the addition of homegrown or locally raised fruit and berries.
Even the freshest-looking fruit sold in supermarkets has had to travel miles to get there. Often it is picked when under-ripe and appears on store shelves in less than ideal condition. It may be waxed, gassed or treated with pesticides. If it comes from another country, it might have been fumigated before being allowed into the United States.
When you frequent your local farm for in-season fruit, none of that is an issue. The very nature of a U-Pick operation is to allow the picker to select the ripest, freshest food available.
If it's important to you to eat food free from pesticide residue, the farmer is usually on hand at a small-time U-Pick farm to tell you exactly how his produce is grown. Questions can be asked and answered directly.
There are many good reasons to support neighborhood farmers. "Think globally -- buy locally" has become a mantra of the environmental and sustainable agriculture movements. I support efforts to find and eat the freshest food available, especially when those foods are grown close to home.
But that's not why I plan to visit Tommy Free's U-Pick grape farm this week.
I'm going because picking fresh fruit is a fun way to spend time. Scuppernong grapes -- which are only available for a few short weeks of the year -- have an incomparable flavor too good to miss. Not only that, but there's something unforgettable about eating fruit minutes after it has been picked, still warm from the sun.
Whether you're a veteran picker like me or a U-Pick newbie, visit a local farm soon and fill up a basket with fresh Florida flavor.
To find a farm near you, go to pickyourown.org.