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It's the berries: Strawberry fields bring July joy

Like the NFL playoffs, strawberry picking happens for only a few short weeks each year, and some families look forward to it just as much as the Super Bowl.

That may sound crazy, but think about it. How many families hop into the car for a drive out to see the big game? Sure, Dad plans it all out for weeks and Mom likes to see just how funny the new commercials are, but just mention the words "fresh strawberries" and watch both of their mouths water.

Images of shortcakes begin to come to mind, double stacked and drowning in strawberries. Belgian waffles, still warm from the iron, mounded with the red fruit and topped with whipped cream. Or a big bowl, with two heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream topped off with sliced, bright red strawberries.

Even if you would rather just eat them plain, it's tough to get better than a strawberry picked right from the vine.

"They're better tasting, of course," said Wendy Templin, of Blackduck when asked about the difference between fresh-picked berries and those you buy at the grocery store. "They're more fresh and you get to choose your own."

Mary Strand of Bemidji has been picking fresh strawberries for at least seven years and has worked at Mistic Berry Farm for the past two.

"It's a fun place," she said. "Because it's an event, people who come here aren't just in a hurry. They are in a good mood, all smiles."

Mistic Berry Farm in Puposky offers a festive atmosphere as pickers ride out to the strawberry fields in a wagon pulled by an old-fashioned tractor. Don't worry about missing one, as they shuttle back and forth regularly, but the wait does help build anticipation.

At the fields, workers provide pickers with a bucket, but you can bring your own if you'd like. They assign you a row, and it's up to you how much you pick. Or you can just sit back and watch the children frolic through the aisles looking for the biggest berries they can find.

Things are similar at Ter-Lee Gardens in Bagley, but it is a bit more intimate. Instead of being on a big trailer you and your family are driven out to your exact picking spot in a Gator Utility Vehicle.

Picking strawberries isn't just limited to family activities. Jessie Ovick, a teacher with Paul Bunyan Summer Camp at Bemidji Baptist Church, escorted students to Mistic Berry Farm.

"We try and find fun things for the students to do throughout the summer," she said. "This is our second year picking strawberries, and we follow it up in the classroom by making smoothies."

At 89 years old, Rose Mary Smischney of Shooks has picked berries for more than a few years.

"Because I like eating them," she said. "And those I don't finish I freeze and eat them later."

According to Terry Nennich at Ter-Lee Gardens, "The cooler weather has extended the season because the strawberries ripen slower." He said he expects Ter-Lee to stay open until at least July 25, but possibly up to July 28.

At Mistic Berry Farm, the strawberry season ends at 2 p.m. today.