Shopping: Luca's got a taste for rich pickings; Young and old alike have a fruitful time at 'pick your own' farm.
TWO-YEAR-OLD Luca Bradley was in a world of his own.
His beaming face dripping with rich red juice, he reached out and grabbed another huge strawberry hanging oh-so-temptingly from the nearest plant.
If I'd ever had any doubts that 'pick your own' was a suitable day out for all the family, then strawberry-loving Luca quickly dispelled them.
He simply had a whale of a time at Manor Farm Fruits in the village of Hints, near Tamworth, choosing the ripest fruits to pick, collecting them in his basket and, of course, sampling his growing haul along the way.
And Luca wasn't the only one getting stuck in to the extensive strawberry fields at one of the Midlands' longest-established soft fruit growers.
On the day I visited with my own two youngsters, Eleanor, aged two, and Isabel, one, a steady stream of visitors ranged in age from young families and middle-aged couples to sprightly pensioners undaunted by the physical exertion of the task ahead of them.
Such a mixed bag of pickers is typical, says Elaine Clarke, who runs Manor Farm Fruits with her brother and business partner, Simon, and whose grandfather planted the first strawberry plants there back in 1972.
"Ten or 15 years ago, the age profile was older, say 50-60 years," explains Elaine.
"But these days we get lots of people in their 30s and 40s, and at weekends and during the school holidays we attract lots of families and children too.
"The first ten years we were here, we were so, so busy. People did a lot more jam backing back then and fruit simply wasn't available all year round in the way it is today because there weren't the imports.
"But then there was a bit of a dip in the popularity of 'pick your own' and as a result, a lot of farms which had started up soon after us, gave up.
"We were always convinced the opportunity would come back though and there has been a real resurgence over the past five to six years.
"Last year was a struggle because the weather was so awful and no-one wants to pick strawberries in the pouring rain, but by and large 'pick your own' is definitely on the up and this year has started really well."
Elaine says a number of factors have come together to tempt consumers to get their hands dirty.
"People are increasingly interested in finding out more about where their food comes from," she says. "They like to come and see where and how it's grown.
"With all the concern about carbon emissions and carbon footprints, people also like to know they are buying produce which has been grown locally and not transported hundreds of miles.
"We do more than 20 farmers' markets every month across the region, including Birmingham, Solihull, Sutton Coldfield and Wolverhampton, and the demand for local produce is definitely there."
But what about those customers who are, ahem, tempted to try before they buy? It was reported recently that one pick your own fruit farm in Cambridgeshire had been forced to shut up shop because people were eating far more than they actually paid for. One cheeky family was even caught red-handed in a field, dipping freshly-picked strawberries in cream.
"There have been occasions when we've had to go over and say something to someone," admits Elaine.
"No-one minds people picking the odd strawberry - you can't stop children popping one in their mouths - but there are limits. . ."
It's not only strawberries which are on offer at Manor Farm, across 12 acres of 'pick your own' fields which remain open for business between June and early September (weather permitting).
And Elaine says she has the new breed of celebrity chefs to thank for the popularity of some of the produce available. As well as ever-popular raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and blackberries, gooseberries and rhubarb are enjoying something of a comeback.
"People like Gordon Ramsay have shown how easy it is to make some great dishes with them, which is fantastic," says Elaine.
The on-site farm shop sells ready picked soft fruit and a range of local produce, including free range eggs, cream, honey, biscuits and ice cream - made using the farm's own strawberries, of course.
As well as the 'pick your own' side of the business, Manor Farm also supplies a variety of local restaurants, hotels, farm shops, caterers and a major supermarket chain.
The farm grows a number of varieties of strawberry - including the beautifully named Elsanta, Judi Bell, Amelia, Florence, Aliceand Juliet varieties - using the minimum amount of pesticides and biological control.
And although picking your own isn't going to save you pounds pounds pounds s, there is a welcome financial reward for doing it yourself. While a pound of ready-picked Class One strawberries will set you back pounds 1.99 (or pounds 1.60 for the slightly inferior Class Two fruits), a pound of strawberries you've picked yourself comes in noticeably cheaper at pounds 1.55.
Plus, of course, you can enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you've scoured the fields for the biggest and juiciest fruits.
"People often say how good our strawberries taste and that's because our fruit is picked at its optimum ripeness and sold straight away," adds Elaine. "We've just set up a new picnic area so people can eat the fruit they've picked there and then, if they want. You can't beat that for freshness!"
GETTING STUCK IN... Luca Bradley picks strawberries at the Manor Farm Fruits 'pick your own' farm in Hints near Tamworth Photo Ref.: SB260608Pick-02; LOCAL PRODUCE... Elaine Clarke with strawberries at the Manor Farm Fruits 'pick your own' Strawberry Farm.; PICK OF THE CROPS... Eleanor Baldwin and Luca Bradley tuck in; and customers purchase their strawberries.