RUSKIN - For those willing to brave the summer sun, plucking tomatoes hot off the vine is a longstanding Florida treat.
U-pick customers typically say harvesting their own produce saves money and ensures freshness. For some, picking crops in a field is a family tradition.
At Artesian Farms last week, customers flocked to the vines, undeterred by a nationwide salmonella scare this month. Federal officials have since said Florida tomatoes are safe to eat.
But U-pick opportunities may be dwindling. A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said she knows of no official registry for U-pick farms, but voluntary listings maintained by the department indicate the number of personal gleaning opportunities is shrinking across the state.
"We have noticed in the time we have been maintaining the list that there seems to be a drop-off in the numbers," said Yolanda Roundtree in the department's Division of Marketing. The state doesn't keep data to track the decline.
Roundtree suggested many of the state's U-pick fields are part of small operations hit hardest by economic conditions.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association said liability concerns and the need to carry additional insurance may also play a role.
Generally, the busiest Florida U-pick season runs October through May, Roundtree said, though consumers may find bargains on melons and other crops during the summer. For a state listing of U-pick opportunities, go to www.florida -agriculture.com/consumers /upick.htm.
Susan M. Green