Put yourself to work in the berry patch

U-pick farms can be a fun (and delicious) summertime ritual
by: L.E. BASKOW, Don Kruger of Kruger’s Farm Market samples some of the Hood strawberries at his Sauvie Island farm.

When I lived in New York, no one ever asked me, 'Have you done your canning yet?' But ever since the soccer game 13 years ago, when a fellow Portland mom turned to me and asked that very question, berry picking and processing has become one of our family's favorite summer rituals.

Portland's urban growth boundary and farmland preservation laws make it easy to get out among the berry bushes 20 minutes after leaving downtown. The greatest profusion of them are to the north (Sauvie Island), west (Washington County), and southeast (Gresham, Boring).

The Willamette Valley's hot sunny days and cool nights promote excellent berry crops. To some degree, the growth in U-pick farms has been driven by changes in the farm industry.

U-pickers substitute for cheap labor, though their amateur harvesting skills result in a lot of wasted (and eaten) berries. Probably the most important benefit of U-picks is educational. 'People can come out and see how things are grown,' says Jeff Boden of West Union Gardens. U-pick farms narrow the gap between farmer and consumer to one degree of separation.

Tri County Farm Fresh Foods Cooperative, www.tricountyfarm.org, publishes an annual guide to local farms, many of which offer U-pick. The guide is available through libraries, farms, OSU extension offices and other outlets, or you can request one via e-mail - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Certified organic farms are hard to come by, but most local berry farmers do not spray their crops with herbicides or fungicides. Still, it's a good idea to ask. Sauvie Island boasts a profusion of family-friendly farms, such as Kruger's Farm Market, the Pumpkin Patch and Sauvie Island Farms.

My favorite is West Union Gardens in Hillsboro. There are no gift shops or hayrides here, just rolling hills and about 10 varieties of berries. Located just outside the urban growth boundary, the contrast between the suburban developments and the beautiful farmland illustrates graphically the abundance that land-use laws protect.

After the strawberries go, next come early raspberries, followed by a profusion of berries this month: blackberries, marionberries, loganberries and tayberries. Blueberries show up in late July, and if it's not too hot, the other berries persist through August and sometimes into September. Those who missed raspberries the first time around get another chance when fall raspberries make their appearance.

Blackberries, raspberries and marionberries (a unique blackberry cultivar) taste great fresh, in jam, or cooked into desserts. A few types, such as gooseberries, are too tart to eat fresh but make great jam.

When picking berries, look into the depths of the plant, or in high or low places, to find gems that other, more impatient pickers have missed.

What to do with all those berries is the biggest challenge. While cleaning out my freezer last fall, I threw out several bags of smashed raspberries from 1996. Generally I turn the whole enthusiastic accumulation into jam and pies, reserving a few pints for immediate consumption.

The jam jars lining my shelves look pretty in their jewel-like colors, and I usually make more than I can possibly spread on bread or give away as gifts or auction donations.

Some experts recommend freezing the berries individually on cookie sheets before putting them away for future use in cobblers and muffins. But they never taste better than when eaten out in the fields, fresh from the vine.