Among the rolling, pastoral hills outside Woodstock, in between corn and soybean fields, lie farms that are ripe with another kind of fruit: berries. It’s time to bring your basket and pack the car for a scenic and delicious experience.
Katie Homuth ventured out to Heider’s Berry Farm in rural Woodstock with the goal of collecting strawberries for a Father’s Day shortcake.
But there was much more to that early June trip than making a dessert. She also wanted to make memories for her 9-year-old son, Finn.
“My grandma used to take my sister and I to the berry patches when we were young, so it’s a tradition I wanted to keep going with my son,” she says.
Passing down memories is important to Homuth, although Finn’s best memories for now may be of a free snack. “He does more eating than picking,” she says. But U-pick-em berry farms like Heider’s are a great example of a family-fun way to spend a summer day.
“I like going to Heider’s because it’s close to my house,” says Homuth, who has also used the berries for ice cream sundaes and homemade jams. “There are no frills. It’s basically a family farm. It’s on a country road that’s not really busy or noisy. You just park, get your basket and start picking.”
Heider’s, at 1106 N. Queen Anne Road, along with McCann Berry Farm, 18110 Kishwaukee Valley Road, are Woodstock-area destinations for people who not only love fresh fruit but who enjoy the experience of picking it.
“It’s a fun outing for all of the family,” says John Heider, who along with his wife, Sue, has run the family berry farm since 2012. “The kids love it. They can go to the store to buy them, but they don’t realize what it’s like to pick them until they come here.”
The jovial Heider says one of his favorite things is meeting people and asking where they’re from.
“People like to come here because they say we’re friendly,” he says. “That’s important for all of us. If my help isn’t friendly, they don’t have a job.”
Heider’s features eight acres of strawberries and 5 acres of raspberries, both red and black.
“We have summer and fall berries,” adds Heider, whose farm is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “We’ll pick all the way to November or until there is a hard freeze.”
And speaking of freezing, that’s one of the big advantages of picking your own, as opposed to buying them at the store.
“You can take these berries and eat them fresh right away, or you can freeze them,” Heider says. “They are what we call a fresh market berry and not a shipping berry. They are a delectable, ripe berry.
“Berries from the store come from California or Mexico, and they are designed to be very firm so they ship better,” he adds. When they are picked, they are green and they ripen during shipping. The varieties that we carry are not meant to be shipped. They are meant to be eaten right away when they are fresh.”
Even better, Heider uses a minimum of pesticides.
“Mostly, we use a fungicide when they flower, before they become a berry,” he explains. “It keeps the berries from getting moldy, but they go 30 days between blossom and berry. We don’t spray the fruit.”
Heider’s features a big parking lot and a store. There’s no admission, but they do supply 4-quart baskets you can fill up for $12. And you can keep the baskets for your return visit.
Heider says most people only need about a half-hour, at most, to fill their basket.
Homuth does offer a few tips for first-timers.
“Bring cash or check,” she says. “And wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. If it rained, wear boots.”
There’s more to Heider’s than strawberries and raspberries. They sell pre-picked rhubarb and cherries in season, and Sue offers her special homemade jam.
The grounds also have a picnic area; drinks are available at the farm stand.
For a while, the Heiders were in competition with Bill and Mary McCann, at McCann Berry Farm. Both offered strawberries; the McCanns additionally grew blueberries. But about two years ago, Bill and Mary – who had been running a berry farm since 1982 – decided to focus just on blueberries.
“When we started, we wanted to farm, but I didn’t have the time and money for a huge operation,” Bill McCann explains, “so small fruit seemed to be the best answer. We started with 2 acres of strawberries, and after a couple of years, we decided to try blueberries. Nobody in the area had them. We put in 50 plants and they did very well. After about five years, we had enough to start selling. We continued that way for 35 years.”
Bill decided in recent years that requirements for growing strawberries became a bit too burdensome.
“Strawberries are a perennial crop, and they tend to bloom earlier in the spring when we seem to have frost nights,” he says. “The last year we did it, we had seven nights of frost, so we had to be up all night running our irrigation systems to keep them from freezing. And we were just getting too old with all the work involved. They are very demanding.”
So, blueberries became their focus.
“Blueberries are also perennial,” Bill says. “There is less of a problem with low temperatures and frost because their flowers are more tolerant of lower temperatures. Blueberry picking usually starts around the second week of July and into early August.”
“We have six varieties that come in at different times during the season,” Mary McCann adds. “Every week a different variety becomes ripe.”
Like Heider’s, McCann’s farm also protects against bugs and birds.
“We have some pest problems,” Bill says. “We have to try and control those, which means we have to spray when we’re not open to the public. “We’re not technically organic. But I try to explain that we do it to a minimum and try to use them in a way that customers are not going to be exposed to it. I will spray several days before we allow people in the patch.”
The public is invited Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. “Or until we’re picked out for the day,” Mary says.
Customers come up to a little stand where Bill, Mary and their employees can answer any questions. Then they are given buckets and escorted out to the patches where they can pick as much as they want.
“We like people to pick where we show them,” Bill says. “We know where the best berry picking is. We want everyone to have a good experience.”
“And we encourage people to pick clean, which means pick what’s ripe,” Mary says. “Sometimes people will just pick the big ones, and we want them to pick all of the ripe fruit so the remaining fruit sizes up.”
Then they return to the main building to have their berries weighed and either boxed or bagged. The cost is $2.95 per pound, and that price includes tax.
Like the Heiders’ strawberries and raspberries, the McCanns’ blueberries are ready to eat right off the plant, but they’re also great for freezing.
But real joy is in the picking.
Both farms recommend checking their websites or calling in advance to check on picking conditions, especially in rainy or cold weather.
“We’ll see you in the berry patch,” says Mary McCann.