By: Abbie Burgess
Pick Your Own Berries
The afternoon sun warms the rows of berry bushes at the farm. The berries on any cluster vary in stages of ripeness from white to purple to deep, rich blue. There’s nothing like a freshly picked, sun-warmed berry!
Berries of all kinds are the darlings of the nutrition world. Packed full of fibe, flavinoids, and phytochemicals that protect cells from damage, it’s easy to see why they are healthful in addition to delicious. Who needs candy when you can savor a handful of sugar-sweet berries? These sweet treats are low glycemic and generally accepted on the Paleo diet.
One of the benefits of northern climate living is that berries thrive here—and pick your own opportunities in the summer months abound. Fresh-off-the-bush strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries offer luscious flavors for the palette and the soul. Medical journals have linked berry-filled diets to preventing heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
My summer isn’t complete without a trip to at least one local berry farm. During the end of one unusually late berry season, a drive to a Wisconsin farm rewarded me with blueberry bushes laden with far more late season fruit than was possible to pick. The fruit dropped to the ground, covering it with mushy berries that the farm dogs could munch. On the drive home, the full flat of freshly picked blueberries in the backseat warmed my heart with gratitude for the abundance of local fruit.
Starting in June, plan to pack up the berry baskets and take the family to one of Wisconsin’s plentiful pick-your-own farms. One such farm in Humbird, Grampa Glenn’s Organic Strawberries, is busy during the early summer months as families flock to the small berry patch. Its one of the area’s only certified oganic berry farms. Nenn Stuve and her husband Glenn have been farming there since 1969 but began the berry business ten years ago.
Children of all ages are encouraged to accompany their parents to pick berries. “We want kids to come, and we also like them to eat berries while they pick. It’s a rule,” Stuve says happily. “Children are encouraged,” agrees John Govin, owner of Govin’s Meats and Berries in Menomonie. Children as young as infants in car seats are welcome, but most berry farms prefer if you leave your four-legged family members home for their and the farm animals’ safety. Farms will provide picking containers, but customers are welcome to bring their own—ice cream pails work well.
The Stuve’s farm has been certified oganic since 1998. She recounts one memorable customer who drove all the way from Chicago to buy organic strawberries for his young son. He left with everything they had in stock that day.
Growing organically is hard work, admits Stuve. Their acre-sized berry patch requires weeding by hand, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. “We had farmed for years, and my husband used all the chemicals,” she says. That all changed when he went to a required class for Wisconsin farmers on chemical application safety. He came back and announced that he didn’t want to use chemicals on the fields ever again. And he hasn’t since. “It was scary to think about all the things he could be inhaling,” Stuve explains of their choice to go organic. She now speaks regretfully of all the chemicals they once used on corn crops. “It was not good for us or the soil.”
Pick-your-own farms offer consumers the opportunity to see how and where their food is grown and be part of the process. And it’s often less expensive to buy berries directly from the farm than from a store. Picking your own berries offers the most savings of all, as berry farms usually mark down the cost per pint over pre-picked berries.
Here in Wisconsin the strawberry season generally starts in June followed by raspberries and blueberries later in the summer, but the months and length of the season vary year to year. “You just never know what the crop is like until you get to it. Hopefully this year will be a good year,” Stuve says. Because factors such as temperature and precipitation drastically affect the berry season, berry pickers should check in with farms for an update before they go. Becky Odegard, farm manager of Appledore Woods Berry Farm in Eau Claire, says the first of June is a good time to start checking local farms’ websites for news on the berry crops. Some farms, including Grampa Glenn’s Organic Strawberries, have Facebook pages with daily updates during the picking season. Or, Stuve suggests, just give a call.
Getting to know her customers is the best part of the job for Odegard. “We have such loyal customers. They’ve become part of the family. They come back year after year, and we get to know their children and grandchildren.” Odegard realizes she is offering more than fresh produce—it’s an activity for people to share together, outside and away from technology. “It’s fun to hear people laughing and talking in the fields as they pick. They’re not on their smart phones,” remarks Odegard.
Growing Your Own Berries
For those who want the convenience of taking a pick-your-own trip to their own backyard, berry bushes can be added to the garden. Erin LaFaive, horticulture educator at the Eau Clare County University of Wisconsin Extension, has advice for aspiring backyard berry gardeners. The first thing needed is an area with full sun and well drained soil. The next requirement is patience! For the first one to two years, dont expect a big crop.
Wisconsin’s three main berry crops are strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Raspberries are the easiest of the three to grow, and the one that LaFaive recommends first forgardeners new to berries. Strawberries are the next easiest to grow, although she notes that they need to be mulched with straw before the winter. “Hay or straw are recommended for mulching, not leaves, because leaves are too heavy.” Two to four inches of straw, enough to cover the crown of the strawberry plant, should be sufficient to get them through the harsh Midwest winter.
“Strawberries and raspberries do best in the area, and blueberries are more high need,” LaFaive says. She advises that before planting blueberries, gardeners need to start with a soil test. That means taking two cups of soil from the planting area, six inches down in ten different spots of soil. Mix the soil together and take two cups of it to the local extension office during business hours. It takes two weeks to get results back. LaFaive says that in Eau Claire County the cost is twenty dollars to cover lab testing and shipping. LaFaive tresses the importance of getting testing done before planting blueberries. “You can’t just guess!” she cautions, adding that the information on the test will advise gardeners of the need for soil amendments. Lime and sulfur can be used to raise or lower the soil pH.
For organic berry gardening, LaFaive suggests covering berries with mesh or floating row covers to discourage birds and pests. “Organic gardening is all about knowing your pests, and staying one step ahead of them.” She notes that there are new pests in the area that gardeners need to be aware of. The invasive spotted winged drosophila is a detriment to fruit crops, organic or conventional. First found in California in 2008, it has since made its unwelcome appearance in Wisconsin. For advice in dealing with pests or any other gardening questions, LaFaive suggests the resources available through the University of Wisconsin Extension. Gardening classes are available throughout the year, and publications are available free online or for purchase through The Learning Store. Have a gardening question? Master gardeners are available to answer them during office hours at the University ofWisconsin Extension or at booths at area farmers’ markets.
Using Your Berry Bounty
Fresh berries are the best berries, but what do you do with your bounty of berries if you have too many to finish eating?Stuve freezes quarts of berries for eating later, perhaps on ice cream sundaes. For strawberries, she prefers to freeze them without washing them, as it preserves the flavor. Other ways to save those delicious berries for later enjoyment is through canning and jam making. LaFaive suggests the UW Extension library for resources on beginning canning. Odegard also loves saving berries for winter months by freezing and canning, especially because she eats her fill of fresh berries in the fields. “We work and eat at the same time,” she laughs. “It’s a great job.”
However you celebrate Wisconsin’s berry season, may it enrich your summer and enhance your table!
Delicious Berry Resources Find out about resources and classes offered through Eau Claire County University of Wisconsin Extension. http://eauclaire.uwex.edu
The Learning Store has gardening books available in electronic and hard copy format. http://learningstore.uwex.edu Have a gardening question? Use the form located on the Wisconsin Horticulture website, and it will get routed to the appropriate person in the University of Wisconsin Extension system. http://hort.uwex.edu