Crouching in the soil, I pushed aside green leaves as the gray, overcast morning started to burn away, the sun rising higher. And then a sudden flash of red peeked out — a strawberry — followed by a feeling of elation.
Moments like this — each as satisfying as the last — marked the morning last June at Bagge Strawberries just north of downtown Independence. There’s something about picking your own food that can’t be replicated in a grocery store.
In recent years, Iowans have contributed to the rising popularity of “you-pick” farm experiences, in which local farmers have opened their plots of land to visitors looking to pick fruits and vegetables themselves. You-pick strawberries, you-pick apples, you-pick flowers. You name it, you can probably pick it.
I wanted to see for myself, so I hopped in the car with a photographer — who was my roommate, Hannah — and made the drive to rural Independence early one morning last summer to visit Bagge, a strawberry patch that has been drawing Eastern Iowa visitors for 20 years.
John and Shelly Bagge have been farming since 1975 on land passed down from John’s parents. The couple started the strawberry business in 1999. At the time, hogs were at a bad price, and the couple was losing money, Shelly told me during a phone conversation before my visit to the farm.
“We thought we’d try a new venture,” she said.
Shelly said they wanted their three children to be more involved in working on the farm. The Bagge children were very young at the time, ages 2, 4 and 6, so Shelly said they wanted to start a business where the kids could safely help their parents.
So strawberries it was.
It was a bit of a process learning how to grow strawberries and how to operate a you-pick experience, but what initially started as a half-acre has grown to 28 acres of gallettas, jewels, honeoyes and more.
I had been drawn to Bagge Strawberries, along with dozens of other people, that June morning, for the appeal of a fresh product from a local grower.
Thousands of people visit the farm each year for the three-week harvest, which typically happens in June.
“There’s nothing better than a fresh strawberry,” said Tom Miller, a Cedar Rapids man I met while picking strawberries. He was already dreaming of the chocolate cake and ice cream he’d have with his fresh-picked berries later that day.
When they arrive, visitors are handed a basket and assigned a row. You can eat as many berries as you want for free but with this friendly warning from the workers: “If you eat, it’s free, but if you eat enough, you’ll have to pee.”
For those who can’t pick themselves, Bagge Strawberries also sells its produce at farmers markets in Independence, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Dozens of people walked away from the farm that morning with pallets filled with hundreds of strawberries, all with plans to preserve extras for the rest of the year.
Shelly is astounded by the growth the business has seen since the family acted on the idea they had two decades ago. Now, even with seasonal workers, they’re constantly busy.
“But nobody knew we were here 19 years ago. We would sit for hours and only have one customer,” she said. “Now I put a post on Facebook, and it’s been viewed 4,000 times.”
She said she looks forward to each season. She enjoys speaking with the older generations who share stories of picking strawberries from their mothers’ plots when they were small and also seeing children have that experience for the first time.
“It’s the stories that people tell,” she said. “There’s gratification that the business has turned into what it has.”
But no matter the motivation, most can agree that parting the leaves to find that patch of vibrant red among the greenery — there’s no better feeling.
Fresh for the Picking
WHERE: 2029 170th St., Independence
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, during harvest season, usually in June.
DETAILS: (319) 334-3983, baggestrawberries.com
Also check out these other u-pick farms.
(Check with producers for season opening and closing dates and when produce is in season)
Allen’s Orchard, 5801 N 10th St., Marion, (319) 377-1408, allensorchard.com
Apples on Avenue, 3035 Addison Blvd, Nashua, (641) 210-5506, applesontheavenue.com
Gravert’s Apple Basket Orchard, 54757 Highway 52, Sabula, (563) 687-2298, gravertorchard.com
Wilson’s Orchard, 4823 Dingleberry Rd. NE, Iowa City, (319) 354-5651, wilsonsorchard.com
The Big Apple Orchard, 1115 Highway 30 W, Mount Vernon, Iowa, (319) 361-7692, bigappleorchard.com
Annie’s Acres Strawberries, 30327 Mill Creek Road, Bellevue, (563) 872-5652 or (563) 872-5050
Bagge Strawberries, 2029 170th St., Independence, (319) 334-3983, baggestrawberries.com
The Berry Basket Farm and Pick-Your-Own, 2683 Highway 1 SW, Iowa City, (319) 325-7542, berrybasketfarm.com
Oakland Mills Berry Farm, 1738 265th Street, Mount Pleasant, (319) 986-6071
Pride of the Wapsi, 14600 305th St., Long Grove, (563) 285-8180, prideofthewapsi.com
Miss Effie’s Country Flowers and Garden Stuff, 27387 130th Ave, Donahue, (563) 282-4338, misseffiesflowers.com
Heartland Farms, 5111 Osage Rd, Waterloo, (319) 232-3779, heartlandfarmswaterloo.com
Hillcrest Garden Market, 1580 P Ave., Marengo, (319) 642-3445