Why do we call this time of year “harvest time”? The nickname can be a bit misleading. Harvest time refers to the point when a plant is ready to be picked or cut from vines or dug up from the soil. It’s the moment when fruits
, vegetables, or even grains are at their peak ripeness. Anytime past this moment, the plant may begin to over-ripen or even shrivel and decay if we don’t pick it in time. Depending on the plant, harvest time can be anywhere from a few days after planting (for microgreens or sprouts) to a few months (corn and grains need as much time during long, hot summers as they can get). This difference in harvest times explains why strawberries are picked in early summer and pumpkins in the middle of fall. Most of what farmers are harvesting right now needed all summer to grow. So while “harvest time” can really happen any time of year, we tend to associate the name with fall since so many of our fruits and vegetables and grains are ready for picking between September and November.
So what is available for harvest this month? For many of us, fall is for apples and pumpkins and winter squash. These plants grow very well in many different states across the country, so it can sometimes feel like we’re all talking about the same fruits and vegetables again and again. Each region of the country has different tastes associated with fall. If you live in southern states like Georgia or Alabama, it’s pecan season – just in time for those famous pecan pies. Move a little farther south, to Florida, and you taste lemons and oranges as citrus season begins. Texas and states in the southwest are all about spicy peppers, tomatoes, and tomatillos – a Texas October is still very warm! California has pomegranates and kiwis, and grapes of all varieties in northern California’s famous wine region. Pears and potatoes are coming into season this month in states like Washington and Oregon, as well as across the northeast US. New England is famous for its foliage and cranberries. Depending on where you live, you might also see porcini and chanterelle mushrooms, as well as nuts like almonds, chestnuts, pistachios, and walnuts. We also see lots of leafy greens like kale and collards and root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and turnips this time of year.
So how do we celebrate all these different types of harvests?
Farmer’s markets are full to bursting with fall produce and foods you can taste as you chat with local farmers and producers. You can even walk down your local grocery store produce aisle and see squashes, root vegetables, and lots of varieties of apples and pears. Many people head out to their local farms where they can go apple-picking, walk through corn mazes, pick out the perfect pumpkin for decorating, or drink hot apple cider. Many farmers don’t just welcome visitors, they depend on them! Pick-your-own farms, sometimes called You-Pick farms, rely on seasonal visitors looking to enjoy a fall day outdoors to help boost their business by sales from apples and pumpkins, as well as any baked or prepared foods available on site. They’re happy to host visitors to their farms and orchards and have begun relying on farm tourism for their businesses.
For visitors like you and me, picking your own fruit or vegetables has several benefits: you directly control the quality and quantity of the produce you pick, the prices are likely cheaper than your local grocery store because you are buying directly from the farmer and doing the picking and transporting yourself, and you are buying your produce at the peak freshness right from the vine (or branch). Farmers benefit too: they form connections with local buyers, they don’t have to pay the transportation costs of shipping their produce to stores, they can make additional money from entertainment on the farm (like face-painting or hay rides) that customers may enjoy during their visit, and the farmer has the income in hand at the end of the day since there is no distributor in the middle interrupting cash flow between consumer and producer. Visitors gain a day spent connecting to their local farms and food sources where they can buy cheaper and more delicious produce, and farmers gain a better connection to their customers.
Depending on who you ask, pick-your-own farms and orchards have been around since the 1850s, the 1880s, or the 1950s, in the form of seasonal farm labor, roadside stands, and trips to the country for city-dwellers: the timeline is hazy because so much of this history depends on memory and word-of-mouth histories from local farmers. Since the mid-1800s, the connection between farms and American consumers changed dramatically. The Industrial Revolution tempted people into urban areas where jobs were more easily available, and more and more people began moving into large cities away from rural farming communities. With better food processing technology and bustling cities, it became easy to forget about the hard work that goes into producing food. Since the 1970s and 1980s, public interest in farm-to-table eating and supporting local farmers helped grow the pick-your-own business model among people hoping to sustain local growers and producers. Pick-your-own farms today are highly seasonal, and often make the visit an entertaining experience, combining the produce with activities to engage younger visitors and connect them to the sources of their foods.
From berry picking in spring and summer, to apples and pumpkins in fall, these farms want to connect to their customers in as many seasons as possible – you can even find non-food options like pick your own flowers like day lilies and lavender during long summer days and wreaths and trees during the winter holidays.
Pick-your-own farms are a great way to introduce children to the sources of their food; hands-on exploration of apples trees and pumpkin patches or growing fields helps them to better understand the work that goes into growing their food. Interacting with farmers and food producers during fall harvests helps all of us appreciate the seasonality of our favorite foods
, as well as the amount of care and effort that those farmers and food producers put into their products. Whether you swap favorite recipes at the farmer’s’ market or take a day trip to a nearby orchard or farm, this is the perfect time of year to remember how your food makes it way to your table, and to your plate!
Click here for a recipe for spicy pumpkin soup and roasted pumpkin seeds – a perfect way to cook with all the pumpkins coming into season right now!