Berries and sunshine, fields as far as you can see, little hands dirtied from picking their own produce. If this image matches your idea of a great summer day, plan a trek to one of the many U-Pick farms in the area. A little prep work will ensure you are not spending the car ride home trapped with an overheated or hungry child.
First, think about what you want to pick and how you will use the buckets of produce you bring home. In June, you should be able to pick beans, blackberries, cherries, cucumbers, herbs, squash, strawberries and more. Starting in July, you can also find peaches, tomatoes, blueberries, eggplant, nectarines, raspberries and cantaloupes.
Next, pick your farm and do your homework. If you want berries that haven't been sprayed with chemicals, ask about the farmer's growing practices.
Find out admission prices and payment policies. Some farms charge visitors fees; at others you pay for what you pick. There also may be costs tied to the containers needed to collect your pickings. Some farms don't have containers, expecting you to bring yours.
Once you've selected the farm, pack a bag with wipes, towels, water, sunscreen, bug spray and snacks. Some farms have little shops or even restaurants where you can buy lunch. But you may want to pack your own picnic if you have a selective eater.
On picking day, dress everyone in old clothes that can get dirty.
Many of the farmers got into this business because they like sharing their farm with others, so they're happy to answer questions about ripeness or demonstrate the best method for picking.
"We really want people to feel like they possess the farm," says Mike Owney of Grace Farm Studios in McHenry Country. "We'll show you the ropes." He also will introduce the kids to the sheep, llamas and chickens who call the farm home.
While the kids will learn how to pick berries or beans, the farmers say they will leave having learned other life lessons.
For example, Grace Farm Studios operates by an honor system. Customers pay for what they're taking by leaving money in a jar.
Michelle Weber of Olive Berry Acres in Grundy County enjoys seeing kids reach a new understanding about food. "Honestly, the thing that excites me the most is kids making that connection that their food is grown somewhere and it doesn't just come from the Jewel," she says.