The secrets behind berry picking

There’s a method to the madness for berry enthusiasts

July 12, 2014
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Photo courtesy Jordan Kinsell
The most recent jars of black raspberry jam, canned by berry picker Jackie Workman of Carmichaels, from her 2014 crop.
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Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter
Scott Morris of Waynesburg inspects berry bushes near his family farm. Order a Print
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Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter
A large bowl of black raspberries waits for its destiny as either pie filling or jam. Order a Print

WAYNESBURG – At the break of dawn with dew on the ground and a single ray of light piercing nearby trees, a quest begins for Carmichaels native Jackie Workman. In a thicket a few miles away, as they have done for several years, Richard Yeager and Dan Wagner have already started their day’s expedition. The three have but one connection, finding the mother lode of this year’s black raspberry crop.

There is something unique about those who pick black raspberries. Like the ritualistic methods of the deer hunter, black raspberry pickers have their own systems they follow.

Another in the picker fraternity, Scott Morris of Waynesburg grinned, recalling the days when he and some of his siblings would turn their berries into cash.

“That’s how we got our money for the Greene County Fair each year. There were nine of us. I don’t remember the youngest ones doing it though,” he said. “We’d sell them in front of Shop-N-Save and Foodland but keep enough berries to have a few pies and jellies. As soon as we noticed them ripening we’d be out all day.”

The window to find and pick the berries is a small one, only two or three weeks, but Morris said the summer of 2014 has been a good one for berry pickers. He credited an especially wet spring.

Workman has the timing of her picking season down pat. Driving along the back roads of Cumberland Township she looks for the “male plants” among the weeds.

“The male ones are the tall plants with big thorns. They have lighter green leaves. There are no berries on them but that is where you find the berries (hidden among them on the female plants),” she said. “I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember. It was a contest with my dad to see who could pick the most.”

Berry picking isn’t for the faint of heart. There are the snakes, bugs, thorns and especially the ivy, sumac and oak, to contend with. “You can’t help but get it. It’s right there,” she laughed. “But, I love it (berry picking). I’m always looking when I’m driving around. It is like a three-week window. I can’t wait when the time comes to see how many I can get. I never eat any while I am out picking.”

Yeager said he has never had a problem with the poison but Wagner gets poison ivy every year.

“You have to love to do it. It is a hot, sweaty job. The environment you are working in is full of things that will tear your hands, face and clothes apart,” Yeager said. “You may get a big scratch across your head from a jagger but that has nothing to do with it.”

There is “nothing better than a topped off bucket,” of “black gold,” as he and Wagner call the berries.

He and Wagner claim to solve the world’s problems when they are on a pick, laughing and talking. Where the picks occur is top secret.

A berry picker never divulges their berry patch location, Wagner said. Each of his fellow pickers agreed.

Yeager and Wagner start their quest between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m.

“We have already picked six gallons and we are just getting started,” Wagner said during a lunch break. “We pick about one-and-a-half gallons a day. I’ve been doing this since I was 10 years old.”

Yeager began with his great-grandfather more than 50 years ago.

The secret is to find a good patch and then pick it every other day, Wagner said. This allows time for the next grouping to ripen. Unlike Workman, who looks for the taller male plants, Wagner keeps an eye out for the blossoms to locate the berries. Yeager added to look in shady areas.

Wagner’s picking technique requires finesse, he said.

“You don’t want to ruin the vines. I put a string around my neck and tie it to my bucket so I can pick with both hands,” Wagner said, noting that is the mark of a true picker.

Morris said the berries are ready when they will come off the vine almost by themselves. If they need to be pulled they are not ready, he said.

“It’s a game of sorts,” Wagner said. “This year has been a stellar year, a fantastic year for berries. The humidity, rain and heat have been perfect.”

He suggests loading up on bug spray and checking for ticks after an excursion.

“You should bring ice water and always have a picking partner in case you trip into a groundhog hole or something. Most of the good berry patches are located where there is no cell phone service,” he said. “There are two types of pickers; the ones who look for them along the side of the road and don’t venture any farther, and the ones who go deeper into the woods for ones no one ever touches. That’s the way to do it.”

What they do with the berries after they pick them is fairly universal, except for Yeager who primarily gives his away.

“I’m very popular at berry picking time,” he said.

A good berry picker knows to never clean the berries until you are ready to use them, according to Workman, who said they get moldy otherwise. The best way to freeze the berries you don’t want to use immediately is to spread them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and partially freeze them on it, Morris said. That way they don’t stick together in one large clump when you move them into freezer bags to freeze them completely, Workman added.

From pies to jams, and cobblers to sauces, these summer berries are the best, in Workman’s opinion.

“My mother (Mary Ann Hathaway) taught me how to make the pies. Black raspberry pie is my favorite. Black raspberry jam is also my favorite. They have more seeds but I put them through a juicer and strain as many out as I can,” she said. “There are farmers that raise them and people can go pick them but the wild ones have the best taste.”

Her fellow berry pickers concur. Besides, there is the adrenaline rush when, after foraging through a dense area of the woods, a picker spies an untouched heavily populated berry patch, Wagner said.

He said it makes one salivate just thinking of the possibilities – the pies, ice cream topping, jam, cobblers, cookies, and on-and-on.

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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