Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Family Adventure: Berry Picking at Gizdich Ranch (Watsonville)

Nothing says summer like the taste of a big, red, juicy strawberry, and there's no better way to ensure you're getting a fresh one than to pull it off the plant yourself. Other than your own backyard, where can you do that? My suggestion is the very popular Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville.

We visited Gizdich last June with friends and returned yesterday, bringing Mr. X along. Both outings were lots of fun, and resulted in LOTS of tasty strawberries (and some very messy toddlers!). This is definitely an outing I'd recommend for South Bay families in the mood for some fun, toddler-friendly agritourism and buckets of delicious, inexpensive fruit.

A trip to Gizdich generally includes two parts: time picking berries in the fields, and time relaxing in the yard by the barn with some hard-earned (okay, not really, but still well-deserved) slices of pie, watching the kiddos enjoy climbing on the tractor, digging in the sandbox, and playing with a wide array of outdoor toys. Plan to spend about two hours there in total, a bit more if you bring or buy lunch.

Note that Gizdich also offers apple-picking in the late summer/early fall -- for some tips on that adventure, check out my post.

Here's what you need to know:

Location: Gizdich Ranch is very easy to reach from the South Bay via 101/129. Our drive from central San Jose took just under an hour. If your GPS tries to send you via Hecker Pass/152, know that it is a very twisty road going down into Watsonville, and they are currently doing roadwork on it that has the road down to one lane, with temporary traffic lights in multiple locations. We drove home that way because we were stopping at Mount Madonna for a hike, but if you're just coming/going directly to/from Gizdich, I definitely recommend the 129 route instead. Directions can be found on the ranch's website.

Hours: Gizdich Ranch is open every day from 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Cost: There is no charge for admission or parking at Gizdich Ranch. The strawberries are $1.75/lb.

Berry Picking Season: Strawberry season opened on May 1st, and when we went yesterday (May 17th), the strawberries were plentiful, ripe and delicious. The ranch's website is very helpful in assessing strawberry-picking conditions as the season goes on -- they will update the page frequently to report that the pickings are plentiful (as they are now), fair (good enough) or slim (probably not worth the drive). Later in the season, the report will often be plentiful in the morning, fair to slim in the afternoon, meaning it's best to plan your trip early in the day.

Strawberries at varying degrees of ripeness
In addition to strawberries, Gizdich offers "Pik Yor Self" olallieberries, boysenberries and raspberries in the summer -- those seasons aren't open yet, but I'll let you know when I find otherwise.

In the fall, Gizdich also offers apple picking. Again, I will let you know when they announce their schedule.

Are they organic? Because I know many of my readers will ask, no, Gizdich is not an organic farm.

Attire: Definitely wear closed-toe shoes, as you'll be walking down dirt paths between the rows of strawberries. There is a lot of dirt, so dress your toddler in clothes that you don't mind getting dusty in the field, or covered with strawberries or ice cream during the feast afterward. And definitely dress in layers! The weather report for Watsonville appears to consider the conditions at the coast -- last summer, we dressed for 60 and overcast and were met with 75 and very sunny because we were a short distance inland. Yesterday, on the other hand, we got 60 and overcast. Dress in layers and you'll be fine no matter what.

Now for the fun stuff...

The Strawberry Picking Field

The driving directions on Gizdich's site will send you to the main barn area of the farm, home to the pie shop/deli, the gift shop, and a fun picnic area. They will not -- this year, at least -- send you directly to the strawberry picking area. Apparently they alternate fields year to year, and while last year's field was located at the end of the dirt road that passes by the barn (meaning you could walk on dirt roads inside the farm from one to the other), this year's field is back on Carlton Road -- not, by any means, a long distance from the barn, but not necessarily a walk I'd want to make with a toddler. 

There is parking at both the picking field and at the barn, so you will probably want to plan to just load your stuff (and kid) up and drive from one to the other. We ended up doing the barn/pie/ice cream/picnic area part first, then driving over to the picking fields after. 

If you want to go to the picking field first (no need to check in at the barn area or anything -- they have everything you need at the field), follow the directions on Gizdich's site to the very last part, but do NOT turn right on Peckam Road -- instead, stay on Carlton for a few more yards, and you'll see a yellow house on the left-hand side of the road, with parking and the strawberry fields behind it. 

Parking is tight and sort of awkwardly spaced in the dirt (read: dust) lot near the picking field. Be super aware of little people running about -- we saw a couple of near misses as toddlers darted out from behind cars while parents chatted or paid for their berries.

To get started, go to the little stand, where they will weigh your containers (if you brought them) or sell you boxes (if you didn't). They'll write the weight on some tape and stick it to the side of your container -- at the end, you'll pay for the difference between that empty weight and your strawberry-loaded weight. 

Once your container is weighed, they'll direct you to a specific aisle or area of the field for picking. Obviously, the hope is to spread the pickers out each day so that the ripest strawberries all over the field are picked, rather than all the strawberries from a small portion of the field. They'll show you how to pick a strawberry without taking the stem (bad for the plants, and unnecessary added weight for your bucket), then they'll set you loose in your row to pick away!

The dirt rows between the plants are too narrow for strollers, so plan to bring a carrier for non-walkers. Also, keep an eye on wobbly toddlers as they cruise down the rows -- although the dirt is pretty even and there aren't many tripping hazards, toddlers are called that for a reason. Obviously it's important to prevent them from falling/climbing on the plants and damaging the crop.

Though they allow you to taste (like, one or two strawberries), they ask that you not graze your way through the field.

At the end, you get your container weighed in at the desk and pay by cash or credit card (not American Express). I think the cost is $1.75/lb. We got 5.75 lbs of strawberries yesterday for just over $10, an incredible (and incredibly delicious) deal.

A word on containers: If you plan to bring your own (we always do), you'll want something not too big (fruit on the bottom will get squished), with handles that are easy for a toddler to hold. As adorable as toddlers harvesting fruit might be, you'll quickly find that toddler-picked berries have a tendency to be under-ripe ("No buddy, we pick the red ones..."), a bit smushed, and pulled without the base of the stem, which makes them rot more quickly. If you're just in it for the fun experience and the photo ops, then by all means, let your toddler pick 'em all, and plan to pay for some inedible strawberries. But if you'd actually like to take home a bunch of beautiful, un-marred fruit, plan to do a good bit of the picking yourself -- having a toddler-friendly bucket makes that easier, as toddlers are so excited to help with the very important job of transporting the picked berries down the row. 

It's also not a bad idea to bring an extra container or two for the car, allowing you to separate the berries out so that none are more than two or three rows deep. If you plan to do something other than drive straight home, or if you plan to buy pies or apple juice from the farm, perhaps a cooler and some ice packs would be smart as well. After last summer's trip, we stopped at the Gilroy outlets on the way home, which did nothing for the freshness of our berries.

Planning to go next week? Maybe these will be your red, ripe strawberries! :)
Bathrooms at the picking field are limited to portable toilets, but there are clean restrooms at the barn/pie shop/picnic area, so if you can wait a minute, it's probably worth the trip back.

Final tip: Your toddler's shoes will be FILTHY when he or she finishes running through the dirt of the strawberry field and tromping through the dusty parking lot. If you care at all about your car, consider removing shoes before strapping your kiddo into the carseat. Don't say you weren't warned.

The Barn/Pie Shop and Deli/Picnic and Play Area

The second part of a trip to Gizdich Ranch has to be a trip to the Pie Shop and Deli, and enjoyment of some treats at the neat little picnic and play area tucked behind the barn and gift shop. 

Yesterday's treats.
Gizdich Ranch pies are AMAZING. You've probably seen them for sale at Whole Foods or other specialty grocers, but this is the one place you can get them fresh out of the oven. Inside the bake shop, you'll see a list of the pies available that day -- though note that they're fresh-baked, so they can (and do) sell out of certain varieties. 

You can order a slice on its own, order it a la mode, or go ahead and pick up a whole pie (or five) to go. You can even call in advance to order whole pies, and they'll have them ready when you get there. Yesterday, we enjoyed the strawberry mini pie and the two berry pie -- in the past, we've loved the olallieberry, the blackberry, the strawberry rhubarb...okay, all of them. And if you're getting the pie, definitely go ahead and spring for a scoop of the ice cream too -- you can work it off tomorrow.

Another can't miss in the bake shop is the apple slushies. These delights are made solely from Gizdich Ranch's apple juice (which is, itself, delicious). It's a perfect, not too unhealthy treat on a hot day.

The bake shop multi-tasks as a deli. I haven't tried their sandwiches yet, so I can't report on whether they're as tasty as the desserts.

After you've grabbed your goodies, you can eat at tables inside the barn, but why would you want to when the outdoors beckons? 

There are some cute little Adirondack-style tables and chairs right outside the barn, but if you stroll through to the back of the barn, you'll find a wonderful little picnic area, complete with kids' toys, a sandbox, see saws, photo ops, and a tractor for climbing. You're welcome to check out the orchards a bit, though they obviously ask that you don't pick anything. Parents can relax with some pie while their kids play in the yard -- my kind of day!

The restrooms are located on the side of the barn building, and are well-maintained.

Across from the Pie Shop is the Gift Shop, where you can purchase berries (if you didn't pick enough) and other produce, jams (delicious!!) and that wonderful apple juice, among other things.

Everything in this area of the farm is stroller-accessible.

Parking for this area of the farm is located between the farm buildings and down the dirt road that you would use to exit.

Overall, I would definitely berry picking at Gizdich Ranch on the summer must-do list for South Bay families. And by the looks of this picture, Toddler X agrees.

Happy picking! 

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