BROOKSVILLE — Black follows blue in the berry patches of Hernando County, but blackberry proponents claim they’re worth waiting for.
Today’s blackberry brambles are thornless and don’t require bending over to pick. Their fruits are mouth-full juicier, and plump berries fill a picking pail quicker than do blueberries.
So said berry gatherers at U-pick Bramble Creek Farm, where an acre-and-a-half of 6-foot-tall canes grows weedlessly over plastic sheeting on trellises. Picking is almost a walk in the park, said repeat customer Darlene Cooper of Bayonet Point on a recent morning.
"Look what I got in 20 minutes," she said of her 7.9-pound harvest. "Unbelievable. That’s why I drive all this way."
The manicured plot south of Brooksville and east of Masaryktown belongs to one of a handful of blackberry growers in Hernando, Pasco and Sumter counties, said Matt Smith, an Extension Service sustainable agriculture regional agent. The plant’s winter cold requirement limits appropriate environs, as well as yields, he said. Also, blackberries require refrigeration almost immediately upon picking, and they don’t travel well, making shipping problematic.
"They’re great for U-pick," Smith said, "because (growers) aren’t so concerned about quantity, but giving people a good experience."
Ann Altman, 62, who tends to customers and the patch, reported "a bumper crop this year." She’s known as "the blackberry lady," while her husband, Gene Altman, 63, performs the heavy chores year-round.
"This year and last year, they’re two weeks earlier than usual due to cooler (winter) temperatures," Ann Altman said. "We’re glad to have a couple of weeks (of picking) in May." The harvest is expected to continue through July. The age range of pickers defies the adage that only grandmothers cook up pots of blackberry jam.
"Kids, families, old folks, country and city folks" come to pick, Ann Altman said. A 10-year-old recently proposed a competition with his mom. "He picked 10 1/2 pounds and his mom, 8 1/2. He was just as serious as could be."
Then there are the really serious pickers.
"I normally get 50 pounds," said Larry Johnson from Inverness. He picked three 5-pound buckets an hour for the home freezer, so his wife can spin up daily smoothies for a year.
U-pick berries are $5 a pound. Berries picked for you are $7 a pound, pre-ordered, cash only.
The farm’s email list, to announce picking times and weather notifications, has 1,500 customer names. Ann Altman noted several families over the years she’s observed from the mother’s pregnancies through their kids’ teen years.
While pick-yourself may harken back to farming’s older days, customers are pampered at Bramble Creek Farms.
Last year, the Altmans replaced an open-air tent with a rustic wooden "blackberry shack." The three-sided wooden building with an attached porch bearing rocking chairs, provides shelter for pickers during pop-up rain showers.
The building houses a mini-market, offering Ann’s homemade blackberry jam, local honey, goat milk soap, handmade bird houses and the occasional vegetable harvest from the Altmans’ garden.
Picking buckets are provided, each pre-lined with a plastic bag, so no pouring — read that as bruising — into take-home receptacles.
On Bramble Creek’s horizon, maybe next year, are U-pick figs. The couple planted 50 fig tree seedlings this spring.
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]