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Strawberry lovers descend on pick-your-own farms

Staff Photos: Jason Braverman
Grace Bridges, 21/2, lifts up her bucket of strawberries that she picked Tuesday afternoon at Washington Farms. Bridges, who was at the farm with her grandparents, was picking the strawberries for her preschool teacher.

Staff Photos: Jason Braverman Grace Bridges, 21/2, lifts up her bucket of strawberries that she picked Tuesday afternoon at Washington Farms. Bridges, who was at the farm with her grandparents, was picking the strawberries for her preschool teacher.

LOGANVILLE -- For as far as the eye can see in either direction, row after row of deep green strawberry plants mark the landscape. Step a bit closer, and you'll see that each plant is laden with fat, ripe, juicy strawberries.

The breeze smells like strawberries. The sweet, red juice stains both big and little hands and faces. It's that time again -- strawberry picking season.

John and Donna Washington, owners of the sprawling Washington Farms in both Loganville and Watkinsville, have built a booming business out of a love for family and gardening. About 18 years ago, when they decided to move on to something else after having been house parents at Eagle Boys Ranch for years, John told his wife, "I'm going to grow something."

According to John, he had his fill of the stressful suit-and-tie world and was ready to make a living by growing something, but he didn't know what.

When visiting a friend in North Carolina, he spotted a field lined with green plants, and he asked what they were.

"They were strawberry plants. I thought, 'What a great idea,'" John Washington said. He and Donna came home and rented six acres of land in Watkinsville and planted strawberries.

"I didn't own a tractor and had never been a farmer," Washington said, recalling that first year of endless trial and error. Today, the couple has two farms, and the numbers are quite different from those first six acres.

The 17-acre farm in Loganville has about 81/2 acres of berries. The rows of plants, if laid end to end, would cover about 171/2 miles. The 62-acre farm in Watkinsville has about 51/2 acres of berries. Laid end to end, the plants would cover about eight miles. The Loganville farm boasts 115,000 strawberry plants; Watkinsville about 85,000.

"Family is so important to us," said Washington, who has raised and homeschooled five children along with Donna. "In this day and age, it makes us so happy to see families out here, moms and dads laughing and talking with their children. They see things growing, and they're out here picking the berries together and having a great time doing it."

All five of the Washingtons' children work for the farms in one capacity or another, and each of them began their careers around age 5 or 6.

"Our children have been taught a work ethic. We might have gone a little overboard with it," he said.

Mary Gilbert has worked for the Washingtons for six years. She started as a freshman at UGA, working the pumpkin patch at the Watkinsville farm that October.

"I have been with them ever since. They're great people, and I love my job," Gilbert said.

She greets customers, explains the picking process and generally helps oversee the operation of the Watkinsville farm. But on Tuesday she was helping out in Loganville. The best thing about her job?

"There are people who come out here once a week, every week, during picking season. They've been coming for years. I love them, the 'regulars,'" she said. "I also get to be outside and talk to people all day. Nobody's ever grouchy when they're coming out to pick strawberries."

Linda and Roy Nelson picked berries with their 2-1/2 year-old granddaughter Gracie Bridges on Tuesday. The Nelsons patiently explained to little Gracie to look for the red berries and to leave the green ones on the plant. This was serious work, as Gracie was picking a basket of berries for her teacher.

"We're working on learning which ones to pick," Linda Nelson said.

According to Gilbert, strawberry picking season runs from about mid-April to the end of May each year. Sometimes pickers get lucky with a season that runs into early June. At both locations of Washington Farms, picking begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Both farms are closed on Sundays.

School field trips and other groups are invited to schedule visits to the farms and enjoy a little bit of "berry education," a hayride and even a petting farm, depending on which farm you visit.

Customers can also call ahead to order pre-picked baskets of berries. Pickers can fill a Washington Farms bucket of berries for $10 per bucket ($11 if you want to keep the bucket). Jams, preserves and fruit butters are also available for sale at the farm.