EAST MANATEE -- We're still a few weeks away from the start of strawberry season in Manatee County, but you can start planning your picking now.
And there's lots of other fresh, locally grown produce available in the meantime.
That's the message from several family farms in Manatee that offer "u-pick" service.
Expectations for a colder Florida winter than last year's bode well for this year's strawberry crop, said Raul Vasquez, farm manager at O'Brien Family Farms. Strawberries should be ready for the public to pick there by the end of November.
"For strawberries, it's great," Vasquez said of expected cooler temperatures. "For us, no, we've gotta be out here."
O'Brien Family Farms, at 16505 State Road 64 E., opened its market and u-pick area for the season last weekend. The market is already fully stocked with fresh peppers, tomatoes, zucchini and squash, plus orange juice from Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, milk from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka City, Amish meats and cheeses, specialty olive oils and honey the farm produces in-house.
Fresh herbs are the only crop that's really ready for public picking now, market manager Leanne O'Brien said, but tomatoes should be ready by next week with strawberries soon to follow.
A little further east, Hunsader Farms, 5500 County Road 675, hopes to have tomatoes ready to be picked soon, farm manager Kim Hunsader said. White and purple eggplant and purple hull peas are available for picking right now, with strawberries to follow sometime in the next few weeks.
The Hunsader Farms market boasts all kinds of squash, potatoes, onion, cucumber, apples, pears and more for sale. It also has a u-pick hotline (941-331-1212) the public can call to find out what's fresh and available
At Eden Farms, 11608 Upper Manatee River Road, strawberries should be ripe for the picking sometime around Thanksgiving, said Sam Caruso, one of the farm's owners.
"We might be a little ahead of that schedule," Caruso said.
Eden Farms' fresh market opened for the season Nov. 1 and stocks a selection of leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, cucumber and fresh herbs.
If it's blueberries you're looking for, King Family Farm and Market, 4630 Caruso Road, will have those ready to be picked in the spring, along with peaches. O'Brien Family Farms expects to have seven varieties of Florida blueberries available for u-pick by mid-March, when strawberry season ends.
In the meantime, King Family Farm owner Shelby King will be selling her fresh produce at this Saturday's downtown Bradenton farmers market. Her farm also partners with an Anna Maria Island chef to host a weekly five-course Table to Farm dinner each Wednesday using the farm's latest harvest. It costs around $63 per person.
"We do a hayride ... and we always have a welcome beverage," said King. "It's a fun time."
Whether it's u-picking, farm markets or special dinner engagements, family farmers agree they wouldn't survive without the public's support.
"Some people don't realize just how hard we work in order to get them a cleaner, healthier food," Caruso said. "It's almost your patriotic duty to get down there and buy something."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.