Valley Bounty: Picking ecologically friendly fruit

  • Pick-your-own strawberries customer Caroline Chen wrangles a prime specimen at the farm last week. Pie in the Sky Berry Farm

  • Crimson clover is a cover crop the farm’s owners have used. Pie in the Sky Berry Farm

  • The farm produces strawberries for now, with a blueberry harvest expected in a year or two. Pie in the Sky Berry Farm

  • Kristen Sykes and her husband, “Farmer Fred” Beddall,  bought their 8-acre farm in the Northampton Meadows in 2017 and had their first pick-your-own strawberry season last year. Pie in the Sky Berry Farm

For the Gazette
Published: 6/18/2020 9:58:09 AM
Modified: 6/18/2020 9:57:59 AM

Pie in the Sky Berry Farm kicked off its second season of pick-your-own strawberries last weekend.

“We hadn’t done any advertising but still, so many people came!” Kristen Sykes said recently. “It was unbelievable!”

Sykes and her husband ,Fred Beddall, who she likes to call ‘Farmer Fred,’ bought their eight-acre farm in the Northampton meadows three years ago.

“The overall goal of the farm is to provide local fruits. Right now, strawberries, and in the future, we’ll have blueberries,” Sykes said.

Blueberries are perennial bushes that take four to five years to mature. So even though Sykes and Beddall have more than 1,500 blueberry bushes in the ground at Pie in the Sky, they won’t be ready for a commercial harvest until 2021 or 2022.

In the meantime, the couple has been hard at work raising strawberries using the ecologically friendly practices that are central to their farming philosophy.

The farm is “low till,” which means Beddall and Sykes use techniques that minimize how much they disturb the soil. They have also planted cover crops and other plants that naturally attract pollinators to the farm.

Pie in the Sky avoids spraying herbicides or pesticides on their crops, which can make it a challenge to control weeds. They also don’t use the black agricultural plastic that many low-spray farms use to stifle weeds before they begin to grow.

“It’s really important to us to not have all that plastic waste at the end of the season,” Sykes said. “Which means we do a lot more hand weeding than we would need to if we had the plastic.”

Now that June is in full swing, the community is able to enjoy the fruits of that labor. Sykes extolled the Northampton meadows, where the farm is located, as a beautiful spot to come pick your own fruit. The meadows is a large patch of contiguous farmland that runs from Route 91 right up to the Connecticut River.

“So many people cross under the Route 91 underpass and are surprised. Suddenly you can see the Mount Holyoke Range and the Summit House. It’s just a beautiful part of Northampton,” Sykes said.

Just one weekend into the pick-your-own season, Sykes is already hearing from customers that the farm feels like a valuable escape.

“People who visited said they were so grateful the farm is here. It was a mental relief to be able to go to a beautiful place and pick produce,” Sykes said.

With so many vacations and summer camps canceled, pick-your-own produce is at least one family-friendly activity that’s still possible during the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, the farm has adopted new public health rules for customers, based on state guidance for pick-your-own farms.

All adults and kids must wear a mask or face covering while on the farm, and there is a hand-washing station by the entrance. Sykes and her team have also been directing customers to different parts of the field so that everyone remains socially distant from each other. Happily, Sykes says the field is big enough to easily accommodate social distancing. Pie in the Sky has also implemented a contactless payment option for customers.

The saddest change due to the pandemic has been a new “no sampling” rule.

“We really feel strongly that everyone should be able to sample and taste the product,” Sykes said. “Last year, one of our real joys was that kids could sample the berries out in the field. A lot of people brought their younger kids and maybe they’re 3 years old and can take this big red strawberry and get to experience picking food right from the source.”

But of course, there’s no rule against digging in the moment you get back in your car.

Sykes expects the pick-your-own season to run through the Fourth of July. Until then, Pie in the Sky is welcoming customers Wednesdays through Sundays, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. If you don’t make it out to the farm, you can also find them at the Northampton Tuesday Farmers’ Market.

Pick-your-own strawberry farms are opening across the Valley. To find a farm in your community, visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide.

Noah Baustin is the communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).




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