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That it was the first day of strawberry picking didn't occur to Emmitsburg resident Alison Mauro and her family. It was the free petting zoo - a treat for Mauro's 2-year-old son, Luke - that lured them to the Carroll County farm.

But once the Mauros saw the "Pick Your Own Strawberries" banner at the entrance, new plans were made. An hour later, Luke emerged from the field with a bulging basket of ruby beauties for the family.

The Mauros bought shortcake and whipped cream from the farm's bakery, salivating over the dessert they planned to assemble back home.

Mauro and her family had never been berrying before.

"There's the perfect amount of sweetness to them," said Mauro, 37, biting into a sun-warmed berry out in the field. "What a difference picking them than buying them in the store."

Strawberries are a sign of the approaching summer as well as the start of the popular pick-your-own season at Baugher's Orchard & Farm, west of Westminster.

But this year, a spring cold spell meant an abundant crop of green berries was slower to blush. The Baughers kept pushing back the first day of picking. The gates finally opened to pickers in late May, nearly two weeks after the season began last year.

"You don't want to get people real built up after they've waited and waited," said Marjorie Baugher, who handles bookkeeping for the farm that has been in the family for four generations. "People get antsy when the weather gets warm."

Strawberry picking has become the first warm-weather ritual for Manchester resident Wayne Ritz, 53, over the past 34 years.

Just as deer season comes on the cusp of winter, berry picking likewise indicates the start of summer, Ritz said. "It's just like the hunting season: the first picking," he said, carrying two brimming boxes of strawberries that he planned to cook up for jelly.

Although she left with only a half-peck (four quarts), Westminster resident Kim Allenbaugh said she would return to the farm for more of the fruit to make enough strawberry jam for a year's worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Others said they intended to concoct strawberry smoothies, sundaes and milkshakes and freeze the extra berries to take them through the winter.

The once-green berries have ripened, first to shades of pale red and then deep crimson. And the blossoms jutting out from the plants' wide leaves promise more fruit.

After Memorial Day, the farm began extended picking hours until 7 p.m. on weekdays. It closes one hour earlier on weekends. Customers, with berry-stained hands and mouths, will have exhausted the crop by late June.

On the way out to the fields, children chatted exuberantly on the half-mile tractor tram ride from the farm warehouse and store. They sat under the shade of an awning on the wagon's bench seats.

A sign on the tractor reminded the families: Pick clean all the ripe berries. The small to medium ones pack the sweetest punch. Unpicked berries cause rot and insect problems.

"We've been waiting for this," said Denise Norton, who rode the tram with her 7-year-old twins, Kelsey and David. Kelsey and David were wearing red shirts, which would help conceal any berry stains.

The twins cheered when their mother said they could eat strawberries with pound cake and Cool Whip later that afternoon - before dinner, in fact.

"It's got fruit in it, so it's a nutritious snack," Norton, 42, said in defense of the dessert.

As they disembarked at the fields, Baugher's happy apple man logo greeted the visitors. Clumps of dark green leaves - concealing the fruit - stretched out in neat rows.

Farm worker Jamal Carmichael, 31, directed the afternoon's customers past the over-picked plants toward the more bountiful ones farther back.

"On the way, if you see [a berry] you like, you can have it," said Carmichael, a South Baltimore native who now lives in a house on the farm, as do his parents.

Loyal pickers had lined up at 7:30 that morning, jockeying for the first berries of the year. It was now 3 p.m.

Owner Allan Baugher stood out in the field to greet his first-day pickers. A weathered straw hat shielded him from the bright sun overhead. The sunlight would soon redden exposed faces and shoulders, just as it did the berries.

Baugher's family has been farming in Carroll County for more than 100 years. His son, Dwight, 32, who was off planting cantaloupes that day, has taken over daily farm operations. Allan Baugher's daughter, Lorraine Jones, 34, runs the bakery, famous for its double-crust and open-face gelled strawberry pies.

The pick-your-own strawberries operation began on the Baugher's farm in 1983. Since then, the pick-your-own strawberries, peas, cherries, peaches, apples and pumpkins have become a steady business that contributes about 15 percent of the farm's revenue.

Allan Baugher said he has watched the agricultural techniques evolve during his 71 years.

Since his son started laying plastic sheeting as insulation on the fields, yield per acre has nearly tripled, and the picking season had been extended, Allan Baugher said. The method produces plumper, bigger berries that are more attractive to customers. On top of the plastic, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used.

"We try to be as organic as possible and still be practical," Allan Baugher said.

One customer was dismayed to learn the farm uses pesticides.

But knowing about the chemicals didn't stop most of the pickers from sampling berries out in the field.

The Mauros tasted their share as they filled a half-peck basket. But with a toddler's attention span, Luke Mauro soon grew bored with picking berries.

His head disappeared under the adult-sized straw hat that his mother bought him in the farm's store. He started placing rocks in the basket instead, on top of the berries.

"He gave up on farming," said Luke's grandfather, Al Bennett, chuckling. "Now he's going to become a geologist."

Alison Mauro and her family said they will be counting the days until berry season next summer. And next time, Mauro said, she will come prepared with her camera, to better preserve the memories. Luke also wants to return for apple picking one weekend in late August.

Strawberry season overlaps with the time of year Mauro's parents come to visit their grandsons from their home near Daytona Beach, Fla.

Al and Barbara Bennett could not get over how flavorful the berries were.

"Oh, they're outrageous!" Barbara Bennett kept exclaiming. "We don't even have strawberries this beautiful in Florida."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

For more information on picking strawberries and other produce at Baugher's, visit www.baughers.com.

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