By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Pick-your-own produce has never been so important.
The migrant laborers at city-owned Brooksby Farm have been delayed for months while a new bunkhouse is being constructed. But produce, including tomatoes, apples, peppers, eggplant and strawberries, are growing all the same, making the annual “pick your own” opportunity more important than usual.
Brooksby manager Pat Kriksceonaitis will invite food lovers from all over the North Shore to pay a fee to pick their own and get a taste of truly fresh produce. Strawberries will likely be available by Saturday.
Kriksceonaitis points to the straw laid around the plants to help them grow.
“That’s why they call them strawberries,” he says, before waving his hand over the field and explaining that it must gleam red from end to end before he can give the word to harvest.
In early July, there will be raspberries. Apples will be ready to grasp later on. Meanwhile, the Brooksby store offers fruit, vegetables, herbs and even compost for gardens.
And Brooksby itself offers even more than that, Kriksceonaitis says,
“Coming up here provides huge mental relaxation,” he says. “People come up here all the time.”
Sometimes it’s only to see some of the farm animals or to introduce kids to the origin of all that food in the supermarket.
“This is the only place for miles around that shows the connection we have to agriculture. There’s never not people looking at the animals, he says.
For Kriksceonaitis, meeting all the people who come by is part of the fun of running Brooksby Farm.
But keeping the operation vital hasn’t been easy this year. The workers who come from Jamaica every spring are absent, except for Leo Peart, a naturalized American citizen who can choose to stay in the old bunkhouse. Because it doesn’t meet regulations for housing migrant workers, however, the bunkhouse is off-limits to the rest of the Jamaican crew, who must wait until the new one, now under construction, is finished.
That means Kriksceonaitis and his staff have had to work furiously to produce only a portion of what the farm grew in previous years.
“We’re not planting as many vegetables as we ordinarily do,” he says. “Where we would have been about 80 percent done by now, we’re about 20 percent done.”
Two Peabody men have stepped forward to do some of the work, but farming isn’t a thing you can just pick up easily, he says.
”There’s some skill involved,” Kriksceonaitis says. “One of the kids we have here, he’s a good kid. He likes to garden. But I think he’s learning there’s a big difference between gardening and farming.”
He points to a field where the new workers are following Peart, who drives the tractor. The team is laying out rows of vegetables. Without the experienced farmers — and some of the Jamaicans have been working at Brooksby for more than 20 years — the effort is intolerably slow for Kriksceonaitis.
“When everyone knows what they’re doing, it doesn’t look like they’re working too fast. But things do get done a lot faster,” he says.
Assistant manager Jason Girard mans another tractor on another field, while another assistant manager, JoAnne Roden, works the store and greenhouse. With a smaller staff, they concentrate on getting a healthy tree crop, including apples and peaches. Field crops are a smaller percentage of the farm’s income.
The hope is that good weather brings forth a strong crop. Farming is labor-intensive, but weather is an even more important factor.
“The big cost is the hours Jason and JoAnne have had to put in,” Kriksceonaitis says.
His own schedule has been impacted, as well.
“I haven’t seen one of my kids’ soccer games this spring,” he says.
He shrugs off the difficulties, however, saying, “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. Once you’ve got farming in your blood, it’s a part of you.”
Pick-your-own strawberries are expected to be available Saturday. Hours are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, 9 to 3 p.m. on weekends. Cost is $5 per quart.
Alan Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.