Cori McKay went straight for the thick vines full of snow peas propped up by a thin trellis, sprouting between bulging bushes of currants and gooseberries.
It is her second year plucking produce at Jackson Gardens in Kasilof, one of the handful of U-Pick options on the central Kenai Peninsula. McKay, of the central Kenai Peninsula, first heard about the abundant variety of crops available for wanting hands during her trips to local farms hosted by Kenai Local Foods’ Harvest Moon Festival in 2015.
“I was like, ‘Oh my, this is good news,’” she said Wednesday afternoon.
Co-owner Bobbi Jackson and her husband grow a diversity of vegetables, tree fruits, berries, flowers and herbs on their Kasilof property and simply can’t gather it all themselves, which they say was perfectly planned.
“We are willing to help everybody who wants to work for their food,” Jackson said.
Those interested have a few ways they can go about filling their bags. Regular volunteers are paid $8 per hour, if they work 10 hours minimum each month, and in addition are allowed half-price for all produce they buy at the farm. If schedules don’t allow that much free time, anyone can come during business hours, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and pick away.
Jackson is usually around, and gives tours and trainings up to three times, which is when people normally gain a grasp of the layout, she said.
“You have to learn to read signs, because every year people pick the regular peas when they think they are picking snow peas,” Jackson said, pointing out the options to Courtney Kirkeby on Wednesday.
The greenhouses cover tomatoes and melons, high tunnels house apricots and arctic kiwis and outdoor gardens containing rows of strawberries and carrots crop up at various spots surrounding their home.
The couple has been continuously adding infrastructure since 2000.
“I could get lost in here,” Kirkeby said. “I could spend hours here.”
This is also her second summer buying and working at the Jacksons’ farm. She said she is simply blown away by the harvest.
While the Jacksons’ operation is the most extensive, a few other growers have opened their farms up for U-Pickers.
Irene Repper and her husband, Richard, at Echo Lake Peonies in Soldotna got into the business basically out of necessity, but have found it to be an effective way to sell their product.
This year, the peony season began nearly five weeks early and many farmers found themselves unprepared to respond to the blooming buds.
The problem is that peonies have to be picked when the bulb is still closed and mostly soft, but a little firm to the touch, Repper said. Many petals were popping out before the couple even had their freezers turned on, and so many were ultimately unsellable to Lower 48 markets before they could even be picked, she said.
Halfway through the season, the Reppers opened their gates to local customers for $1 per stem. The response was overwhelming, she said.
“We saw a good amount of people coming in that didn’t even know we existed or that peonies grew on the peninsula,” Repper said. “People came out and saw our field and loved the peonies. Many said they will definitely come back again next year.”
Repper said she plans to market the U-Pick more heavily next summer. She will still diversify her methods of sales and sell at farmers markets and online through the Kenai Peninsula Food Hub, a common approach for local farmers.
It was also the first year O’Brien Garden and Trees decided to get some extra help to round up their range of ready berries.
By appointment, anyone could come pick blackberries, honeyberries, gooseberries and strawberries for $4 per pound, $2 cheaper than if they bought already picked and packaged products from the farm, said Michelle LaVigueur, orchard manager.
She said the option was opened after repeated requests from customers.
“Now that the fruit trees are matured, there is definitely more on them than we could ever pick during the ripening period,” LaVigueur said.