POSTED ON JUNE 15, 2011:
The search for fresh Oklahoma-grown blackberries
Dressed in "rubber boots up to our knees, worn-out jeans, old flannel shirts and the ugliest hats," Jami Cole and her grandma used to head out into the early-summer sun to pick berries. Some of her sweetest childhood memories are of those bright morning journeys with her grandma, who would "grab a rake or a hoe out of the garage before we set out," Cole remembered.
The garden tool was for any lurking snakes that might happen by as they worked.
"But the threat of battling a snake was worth the reward of homemade blackberry cobbler and ice cream," she said.
After a fruitful morning, Cole said she "always came back to the house sweaty, sticky, stained purple and completely delighted."
June marks the start of blackberry season in Oklahoma, a short span of three to five weeks wherein berries are ripe and ready for picking. This year, however, the berries are ripening later than usual and in some cases, not at all. February's double blizzards ruined some fruit crops in the area, said Owasso Christmas Tree and Berry Farm owners, Bill and Paula Jacobs.
Bill, a tanned, blond, no-nonsense farmer with calloused hands and energy to spare, has grown blackberries at the farm for 19 years. As for this year's crop, he said many of his canes, the vine-like bushes that produce blackberries, froze above the snow line this year.
"On a lot of the rows, the berries are ripening down at the bottom, but the top parts froze," he said. "The snow insulated the blackberries from the wind."
Despite weather setbacks, the five acres of blackberry rows on the Jacobses' farm are starting to ripen. In some spots, only white flowers bloom while other rows are heavy with nearly ripe berries. Along with a few other area farms, the couple is expecting to have fresh fruit for the picking at the end of June.
"A lot of things affect the crop. They're a delicate, tender berry," Bill said. "That's why blackberries are so popular -- because they're so hard to find."
Farmers markets and produce stands often offer already-picked berries, but if you're looking for the full experience check out a local U-Pick farm. For updated information and extensive farm listings, go to pickyourown.org.
The Jacobses' farm in Owasso isn't quite the same as heading into the wild armed only with a grandma and a garden hoe, but the berries are just as fresh. And fewer snakes are involved.
Locating perfectly ripe berries is the key to good blackberry picking. The berries must be picked when they're fully darkened and firm because they won't continue to ripen after they're plucked from the bush.
"The reddish berries are pretty to look at but most of them aren't ripe yet and taste sour enough to pucker you up for a few minutes," Cole said.
Find that perfect, plump, dark berry and you're in for flavor that no grocery store can't imitate.
Cole, a 30-something self-proclaimed city girl, unfurled her country roots as she offered her own picking advice.
"Ripe blackberries have to be picked carefully," she said. "You don't want to squish them and waste one of the greatest gifts the world of berries has to offer.
"Wear gloves!" she said. "Especially when picking blackberries because they stain your hands."
Bill suggested a middle ground: one glove on, one glove off. Wear a glove on your "non-picking hand," for handling thorny vines while leaving your other hand bare to prevent mashing the berries on accident. "Move the canes around with the glove, then pick the berry with your non-gloved hand," he said.
"I wouldn't recommend roadside picking for anyone but the most experienced," Cole said. Growing up, "I got over the embarrassment of having my dad pull over on the side of the road so my mom could hop out and pick elderberries when I got to enjoy homemade preserves in the winter."
Picking fruit is a tradition for many Oklahoma families, including Cole's, where the custom was passed from her great-grandma to her grandparents to her mother.
Another berry picker, Courtney Cassady, said she usually picks blackberries with her great-aunt outside of Bristow.
"In mid-July in the 100-degree weather with thorns stabbing my arms for one good berry ... but it's worth the blackberry cobbler my grandma makes us," she said.
It's all in the family for the Jacobses, too. Bill grew up picking blackberries with his dad in the wilds of Missouri. After he met Paula, they decided to get hitched and poked around for post-retirement hobbies. At the time, they were still in the throes of their careers -- Paula was a Hertz Rent-a-Car corporate representative and he was a fishing tackle salesman.
"We were looking for something for when we got old and didn't have anything else to do," Bill said. Something about Christmas tree farming intrigued them. By 1988, the pair had moved into their home and farm in Owasso, and Bill began trying his hand at planting Virginia pines in Oklahoma dirt.
Once Bill retired, he took on blackberries. The couples' son and daughter, Brent and Lesley, "all help, and have from the first," Paula said.
Brent and son-in-law Eric "help me outside on the farm with the trees," Bill said, while "Lesley works inside with Paula, and decorates the gift shop and wreaths."
Not only are blackberries delicious, but they're packed with anthocyanins -- cancer-fighting antioxidants. Picking your own fruit saves money, too, as farms offer a better deal on berries than can be found at the store. Though blackberries need to be kept cool and last in the refrigerator for three to five days, excess berries can be washed and stored in the freezer for months. Additionally, blackberries can be used to make preserves, jams and jellies.
During their blackberry-picking season, the Owasso farm will be "busy, busy, busy the entire time," Paula said. The pair and their sons and daughter will be out in the fields and gift shop, offering buckets and advice, take-home flats and fresh, local honey, from 9am-5pm.
Paula laughed, "Sometimes he lets me go home early."
So, get picking while the picking's good.
Call for specific dates and times at 918-272-9445.
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