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Enjoying the fruits of your labours

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Economics, food consciousness, or just a desire for fresh air - whatever the reason, 'pick your own' is enjoying a strong revival, writes Ben Bentley.

Economics, food consciousness, or just a desire for fresh air - whatever the reason, 'pick your own' is enjoying a strong revival, writes Ben Bentley.

Leaping off tall buildings will just have to wait. Poised, pants on the outside and boots hoiked high, a more pressing mission awaits Superman: to fill his punnet with raspberries for tea.

Superhero Jonas Rawling, six-and-a-half, from Clun, has left his cape at home, but it's just as well - he'd probably only get juice all down it anyway.

"This is my first time fruit picking," says Jonas among the avenues of fruit at Wistanstow Fruit Farm. "We are going to make a pavlova with it when we get home."

Jonas is a trendsetter - and it's not just for his flash clothing. Due to a combination of the long spell of warm weather and belt-tightening effects of the recession, Britain's pick-your-own farms have made a massive comeback this summer, with record sales reported.

Farmers say the incredibly high number of customers and sales is akin to a return to the boom of the 1980s when picking your own fruit and vege­tables peaked in popularity.

Shropshire's pick-your-own fruit farms too are reporting a boom, with rich pickings for swarms of food-conscious folk heading out into their fields to hand harvest the most nectarious strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants.

"After several years of wet summers, this year's long dry spell is enticing customers out, with most places in England yet to have a wet weekend," said Rita Exner, from the National Farmers Retail and Markets Association.

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'Many people have been saying it is like the 1980s when the fields were heaving with pickers."

Julie Jones's family have given a field over to pick your own at their farm in Wistanstow for the past 30 years. In recent years she says she has noticed how this "dying trade" has resulted in fewer pick-your-own farms, but indicating a field full of punnet-packers says: "A lot more people are coming.

"We went through a lull but it is definitely busier. We are getting younger people coming now too. It used to be more the older generation but of course they are gone.

"They would use the fruit to make all sorts - jam, cakes, puddings. People don't do that so much nowadays.

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"But since there have been television programmes like River Cottage with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, I think it has helped make people - especially younger people - more aware of fresh food."

Julie says a group of scouts came fruit picking. "Twenty-five children and only three of them had been to pick-your-own before."

When pick-your-own fruit farms began springing up in Britain in the 1960s, following a trend started in the US, people were still living in the post-war years, having been brought up with make-do-and-mend values and making a little go a long way.

Families would drive out at weekends and pick baskets of fruit, then freeze, preserve and tin their supplies for the winter.

But the arrival of supermarket giants in the 1990s sent fruit picking into a nosedive. Since then a generation has passed which simply went to a retail park and lost the habit of fruit picking.

Joe Breeze from Breeze Farm, near Rudge Heath, Bridgnorth, says: "As a kid I used to go pea picking, hop picking and fruit picking. I was 'granny reared' and we would go with her down to Herefordshire and pick hops and fruit all day."

Happily this year he is seeing a return of an appetite for picking.

"I have definitely noticed an increase in people coming and picking their own. Four years ago when we started we had 20 or 30 regular customers; now we have more than 200 regulars and they come from all over.

"We are organic here and I think it's partly down to the fact that people are waking up to the idea of wanting fruit fresh from the fields and the idea that supermarket fruits are sprayed and kept fresh until they go on the shelves.

"You can buy English apples now, but how have they kept English apples since last September?"

Imported fruits, once the season is past, also has to be preserved, and Joe reckons the gas freezing compromises on taste.

"The main thing is the difference in taste - the taste is out of this world compared with supermarket fruit.

"My wife bought some strawberries from a supermarket - she had to because it wasn't the season for them at the time - and they looked gorgeous, big, red and juicy. But we ate them and they were tasteless."

Britain has more than 1,000 pick-your-own farms, with strawberries and raspberries the most lucrative and popular fruits. Many are now also growing more exotic fruit and vegetables such as melons, pumpkins and asparagus - and even flowers, including sunflowers, gladioli and sweet peas. At Wistanstow Fruit Farm, Clare Greig, from Bishop's Castle, is stocking up on gooseberries.

"I've always picked," says Clare, "and I'm 70 now. I don't need to grow my own because the fruit is so good here.

"With raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries I make summer puddings, freeze them and have them later. I might purée some fruit, freeze it for later and put it on yoghurt - delicious! I could make jam but I don't like bread, so I will freeze some of the fruit as it is and it really lasts."

She adds: "Fruit picking has always been popular in this county, Shropshire people have always had to be frugal, living off the land. People go picking blackberries off bushes, go damsoning and crab apple-ing.

"Years ago kids took days off school to pick wimberries, which you see on places like the Stiperstones, and they would use a big comb tool to pick them."

The economic downturn is seeing a bit of a return to those frugal days, says Clare. And for families pick-your-own is a cheap, healthy and fun day out.

"Families until recently had lots of money for outings, but now they are looking for an inexpensive time out in the fresh air. It's like the grow-your-own thing and making things," she says.

Natalie Walker from Green Fields Farm in Donnington, Telford, stopped offering strawberries a few years ago due to theft but says: "We still have pick-your-own raspberries, which have made a strong comeback in times of recession.

"Our grade-two fruit is also flying out as people are going back to older, traditional jam- and sauce making, and freezing fruit for the winter.

"In the last 20 years we have seen a full circle of shopping/picking habits and we are now seeing customers after the cheaper and better-value options, and they are willing to take the time to pick their own.

"Five years ago the average shopper just wanted the 'easy option'!"

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound . . . that's little Jonas Rawlings with his superpowers boosted, probably by the fresh Shropshire fruit he picked this morning.

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