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August 1, 2009
A Berry Bonanza
We live in the middle of bountiful berries this time of year. Strawberries just finished a few weeks ago, raspberries have been strong for almost three weeks and the blueberries are hanging in heavy branch-busting clusters begging for relief. Domesticated marion blackberries are already in the berry stands, but the wild blackberries are about two weeks from harvesting. There are a few cranberry bogs in the area too, but they have weeks to go before they are ripe. It is truly a miracle to live within a few miles of all this lovely fruit, with most of them growing in our own back yard.
There are still wild strawberries in close-to-the-ground crawling vines with little thimble shaped berries with a slightly tart taste, far more interesting than the standard sweet juice laden market strawberry. Orange huckleberries grow wild in the low lands, and purple huckleberries are happiest up in the foothills, a great treasure find for hikers. Most highly prized, however, are the sweet tiny wild blackberries that grow close to the ground, often in roadside ditches or around tree stumps. They command huge prices per pound because it takes such effort to find and pick them.
As a child of the Pacific Northwest, growing up on a farm with woodlands and meadows with both wild and domesticated berry bushes, this was simply part of summer as I knew it. I watched the blossoms, then the forming fruit, then watched as the color would get just right, waiting to pick until the precise moment of ripeness before the birds would beat me to it. I also picked in the local fields as a summer job, including wild blackberries from our own woods, for 3 cents a pound. For the sweet wild blackberries, a yield of 75 cents was an exceptionally great day.
I preferred blueberry picking most of all. When I put a blueberry in my mouth, I transport back to those summer days that started at 6 AM, walking down the road to the neighborís, to their low pungent smelling peat ground converted from swamp to productive berry farm before the legislation that now prevents messing with wetlands. The bushes were tall, towering over my head, providing shade in the hot sweaty July sun. The berry clusters were easy to find, there were no thorns to shred sleeves and skin, and the berries made a very satisfying *plink* when they hit the empty pail. They didnít smush, or bruise, and didnít harbor many bees, spider webs or ugly bugs. They were refreshingly sweet and rejuvenating when a quick snack was in order. I wasnít even aware, as I am now, that blueberries contain anthocyanins and other antioxidant chemicals believed to be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells. In short, blueberries were perfect then, and they are perfect now.
Unfortunately for our local Whatcom County blueberry farmers, there are so many blueberries this year due to so many new farmers and a bumper crop from warm sunny weather, the market is flooded and the price per pound has dropped considerably. One farmer put a full page ad in the local newspaper today, begging the public to come pick the ripe blueberries now at 99 cents a pound, just to get them off his bushes. I stopped by another farmís roadside stand and chatted with the Sikh owner and his three young sons as they measured out my 5 pounds of luscious blueberries. He was philosophical about the low prices, explaining he was a patient man, and the bushes would yield blue gold for him for a very long time, even if some years will be low price years.
As a fellow farmer, I appreciated his willingness to hold out through the rough times. He beamed with pride about the perfection of his crop, plentiful as it was. My tastebuds agree: this was the perfect berry 45 years ago in my backyard, and some things thankfully never change.