Strawberries, A Jalopy and Grandpa Floyd
Is there anything better than a fresh-picked Michigan strawberry? A morning spent at a U-Pick strawberry farm is a June tradition throughout the state. There is usually a family owned farm close by that isn’t hard to find.
Every June, mom and dad would back us kids up for a vacation near Alpena. We stayed with my parents’ friends; Basil, Iva and Grandpa Floyd. One morning, sitting around the kitchen table eating bowls of Raisin Bran, Grandpa Floyd asked if my brothers and I wanted to go strawberry picking. We could eat all the berries we wanted and earn a little money besides. Free strawberries and money too? I was on my way out the door. My brothers weren’t so sure. They were older and wiser than me.
Grandpa Floyd loaded us up in his old jeep. The boys sat in the back and I got to ride shotgun. Lula Bell, the dog, wanted to go with us but Grandpa Floyd said they didn’t let dogs into the strawberry patch.
He fired up the jeep and we were off. Dust from the dirt road filled the interior of the old jalopy. There were several missing floor boards and I had to be careful where I put my feet. I think Grandpa Floyd wanted me beside him in the front seat in case I started to fall through.
The dew was drying when we arrived at the strawberry farm. There was row after row of lush, berry-laden plants. The three of us were fitted out with a wooden crate that held eight empty quart boxes and shown a row to pick. For every crate we filled we would be paid a quarter. Grandpa Floyd decided to wait in the jeep.
Many of the rows already had pickers. It was my first experience working alongside the migrant families that are still a vital workforce in the Michigan agricultural economy. Whole families worked together and they picked FAST.
After the first half-hour, I was full of berries and twenty-five cents richer. At the end of an hour I was only half way down my row, seventy-five cents to the good, sick of strawberries, hot, sweaty and tired. My brothers were ahead of me but they were red in the face and looking cranky. Grandpa Floyd had told us we needed to finish our rows, it was good picking etiquette.
Soon, I only had four more quarts to go to fill my third crate and the end of the row was insight. My brothers were done and cashing in their berries. I persevered, filled the final four quart boxes, reached the end of my row and said, “I quit!” I’d made $1.50 and felt pretty good about it. But, I didn’t eat strawberries again for quite a while.
I still get a feeling of abundance when I see row upon row of ripe lush strawberries in a field. I live in a farming community and the annual Picking of the Strawberries, followed by making jam and freezing the berries for pies in the winter, is a rite of passage handed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter.
There is something grounding about buckets of fresh strawberries on the kitchen counter and getting out grandma’s recipes. It is a beautiful way to connect with the past and reach out to the future. I hope to take my granddaughters berry picking one day and teach them how to make jam.
The strawberry pictures in this post were taken at Kohler Farms, located a half-mile south of US 12 on Jerome Road in Hillsdale County. I want to thank Amber for letting me wander through her rows of berries with my camera.
Here is my mom’s recipe for strawberry preserves. She used paraffin to seal her jars, but I use rings and lids.
1 1/2 quarts of strawberries 5 cups of sugar
1/3 c lemon juice
DIRECTIONS: Rinse berries and cut off the stems. Cut large berries in half. Gently mix together strawberries and sugar. Let stand for 4 hours. Transfer to a large saucepan or kettle. Slowly bring mixture to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add lemon juice. Cook at a rapid boil for 20 until thickened. Ladle into sterilized jelly jars leaving 1/4 inch head space. Screw lids and rings tightly. Invert for a couple seconds then stand upright to cool. Make about 8 half-pints.