Fresh strawberries are a Cox Berry Farm u-pick staple.

 

RITE OF SPRING

First fruits of the season at Cox Berry Farm and Nursery

By: Kat Robinson    Photography: Kat Robinson

Some see spring’s arrival in the daffodils that come forth in late February or early March. Others find it in the redbuds that lazily loosen tiny blossoms into small, popping bursts of color—or in the season’s first gust of warm wind.

I see it in the strawberries, blackberries and blueberries that mark the start of a new growing season.

I don’t grow berries myself, but I still enjoy the fruit. At some point each May, I pick up a flat of strawberries to share with friends and family, or I grab a bucket of blackberries from a roadside stand. My daughter, Hunter, has known fresh berries all eight of her years. She loves that flavor. 

This year, I let her pick her own.

We headed west on I-40 one Saturday morning under skies threatening to spit rain, the heavy cloud cover holding the temperatures down. Off the interstate, we went north at Lamar and skirted Clarksville to end up in the community of Ludwig, not far from the University of Arkansas Fruit Research Station. This is where you find one of Arkansas’ crown jewels of berry-picking: Cox Berry Farm and Nursery.

This spread of fruit trees and plants atop Red Lick Mountain has been operating seasonally as a u-pick location for more than 40 years, but its roots extend back to the 1940s, when the first of three generations of Coxes began planting here. The farm spreads over the ridge, with alternating rows of blackberry brambles, peach trees and strawberry plants. A hand-painted sign denotes the turn-in. Once up the gravel road and over a low gully, an old red shed marks the starting point for those seeking sweet pickings.

Hunter Robinson, author Kat Robinson’s daughter, roams the rows at Cox Berry Farm looking for ripe strawberries.

Hunter Robinson, author Kat Robinson’s daughter, roams the rows at Cox Berry Farm looking for ripe strawberries.

Hunter and I climbed out, careful of the red mud and puddles from the intermittent rain. We’d arrived during a break in the precipitation. We approached the shed, and a beautifully weather-worn woman opened the window to see if we had any questions. She told us there had been pickers on and off all morning so she wasn’t certain where would be the best place to start, but noted it would not be hard to find ripe berries. We took a single gallon pail and crossed over to the black-topped mounded rows that bore the strawberries.

At the outer edge, the berries that remained were green, ripe ones already obviously pulled by the day’s first visitors. Carefully, Hunter stepped up on one of the black plastic-topped mounds, boots between the delicate plants, over to the red dirt betwixt this mound and the next. We carefully stepped over four or five rows before starting to look.

These strawberry plants, while on mounded rows for good drainage, were still low, and Hunter commented on the bending. She didn’t spot much of any decently red berries at first, so I placed my knees on the edge of one of the rows and pulled apart the plants, giving her a primer on the appropriate redness a berry needed before it could be considered ripe, showing her how some berries that appeared ripe on one side might be green on the other. She furrowed her brow and concentrated, delicately pulling apart the leaves on the next plant over, asking whether the red berries there were ready. We could begin.

She pulled the bucket along as she scouted back and forth, walking in the ruddy middle in between the lines of plants. She compared it to looking for Easter eggs, and I agreed. The search for good berries, especially on a row already touched by other seekers, requires keen eyes.

Some berries were perfect specimens, something out of a magazine article, clean and shiny red with yellow seeds, the fruit coming to a perfect point on the end. But others–quite a few, in fact, were bulbous rounds or bumpy masses. I noticed many of these had been overlooked by other pickers–and assured Hunter that they’d eat just as well.

Once she got the hang of it, peering down at the plants then almost expertly sliding the leaves aside with the back of her hand, slightly turning each berry to see the underside then gently tugging it off, I let my mind wander a bit. There were other families in the field, children younger than Hunter, and a couple in their 20s. The couple interested me the most–he was apparently from the area, and she was his soon-to-be bride who had never picked before. The groom-to-be echoed much of the advice I’d already given Hunter, voiced with a slight dry humor as his city-born fiancée commented back affectionately.

We both spotted the bits of red in the uncultivated rows at the center of the patch about the same time. Strawberries hadn’t been planted fresh in this area this year but still some plants had either managed to come back from previous plantings or had displaced themselves into the weedy beds atop unkempt mounds. Here we found more ripe berries, overlooked by other pickers, and Hunter started dropping the berries in with both hands, excited but starting to tire. 

A big fat drop of rain struck the side of my hand and rolled down. Hunter shook her head, and I realized the moist air had turned to mist. Thunder quietly rumbled in the distance. Our bucket almost full, I decided maybe we should duck out from the impending rain before we were both muddy.

At the shed, I put the bucket on the table. The woman behind the counter pulled open the window, asked for $8.50 and gave me change. I asked about the bucket and she said to take it home. I also took a sheet of paper offered for free next to the window, some recipes featuring strawberries we could enjoy later.

As we got back into the car, a family of six was folding out of a van with little umbrellas and galoshes. Hunter buckled in and sighed. I reached into the bucket next to me on the seat, lightly grasped one of the big berries and handed it to her. She took it with red-stained fingers and quietly ate as we pulled back onto the two-lane highway. On the way home, the car smelled delightful. And about an hour later on our drive home, she stunned me from my reverie, telling me how happy she was that we would soon make strawberry jam.

Cox Berry Farm and Nursery located at 1081 Highway 818 in Clarksville,
and is open Monday-Saturday, 7:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. For more information, visit coxberryfarm.com.