Hernando County U-pick farm's blackberries are ripe and ready for picking

Dennis Bixler picks berries along a row of plants at Bramble Creek Farms, south of Brooksville, on Tuesday. Bixler brought his family and a friend from St. Petersburg to pick berries. The farms’ owners, Gene and Ann Altmano, tend about 400 thornless blackberry plants on 1 acre of their 12-acre property.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Dennis Bixler picks berries along a row of plants at Bramble Creek Farms, south of Brooksville, on Tuesday. Bixler brought his family and a friend from St. Petersburg to pick berries. The farms’ owners, Gene and Ann Altmano, tend about 400 thornless blackberry plants on 1 acre of their 12-acre property.

BROOKSVILLE

Bramble Creek Farms is not your grandma's wild blackberry patch.

If she took you picking as a child, you'll remember tramping through scrub, wearing long sleeves and pants in summer's oppressive heat to ward off jaggers, other prickly grabbers and sucking insects. And, you'd still come home with scratches around your wrists and hands, and bug bites on your neck.

While Grandma baked succulent blackberry pies and muffins — and persevered over a hot stove stirring up blackberry jam — you came to hate blackberries.

All of those inconveniences are overcome at Bramble Creek Farms, except for Florida's heat, of course.

The season for Hernando County U-pick blackberries is in full swing and should continue through the end of July, say owners Gene and Ann Altman, who tend about 400 thornless blackberry plants on 1 acre of their 12-acre property south of Brooksville. They've been engaged in the endeavor for about six years.

Thornless, a picker's dream, isn't the only attraction for the Altmans' up-to-date enterprise. The brambles grow above strips of permeable landscape cloth, which allows rain to penetrate but eliminates weeds among the berry plants. The canes climb trellises of high tensile wire, putting the berries within comfortable reach. Beyond the plantings, mowed paths of well-kept grass remind a visitor of a formal English garden.

The brambles appear not just pruned, but manicured, so that canes do not overlap to trap a picker's hands. Leaves are a well-nourished deep green. But pickers don't necessarily come for the beauty; the fruit is their purpose.

The Altmans' berries are the size of the first digit of an adult thumb, what Grandma called dewberries, the creme de la creme to blackberry aficionados, glossy as dew-laden leaves and plump.

Pickers at Bramble Creek Farms rave.

Bonnie Maier of Spring Hill, plucking on a recent day, has been picking for four years at the farm. The 65-year-old, who noted that her husband, Fred, and a male buddy picked up buckets for a harvesting effort the previous week, said, "Our freezer is full. They'll last the whole year."

After fast-freezing the berries on trays, the Maiers "just eat them (fresh frozen) for healthy reasons," Bonnie Maier said.

Rick Efes, at 74 a retired chef from a restaurant he owned in Spring Hill, preferred to take a further step as he chose a row for picking, fairly licking his lips.

"Marmalade, blackberry chicken crepes," he announced of the berries' destination.

It marked Efes' second annual foray to the farm.

Driving up from Tampa and attacking the crop with alacrity and enthusiasm, the Asbrand family — mom, Sonia, 42; dad, Steve, 46; and sons, Jason, 10, and Jackson, 8 — smiled among the canes. Jason said the family has picked at Bramble Creek Farms "a bunch of times." He likes "just eating them (fresh)."

"We're going to make blackberry parfaits when we get home," Sonia Asbrand added.

But it's more than the produce, she declared. "It's fresh; it's cheaper (than the supermarket); it tastes better, and it's fun for the kids."

She searched U-pick outlets in Florida on the Internet to locate the Hernando County farm.

And the Altmans cater to their visitors. They've erected a sun-retardant tent where they weigh the berries — $3 a pound — and also offer honey, blackberry seedling plants, a few vegetables and the family's jarred Granny Recipe BBQ Sauce. The parking area is shaded by majestic trees.

Ann Altman greets returning pickers with warm hugs.

"The people are so nice and remember you here," said Bonnie Maier.

Some of the pleasure the Altmans get comes from knowing that their labors are appreciated. But it's not easy. Pickers may not realize the work that's required to produce a crop.

The challenges of growing blackberries?

Gene Altman, who grew up on a farm and is now an engineer for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, said, "It's the same as anything else in farming: diseases, insects, a lot of maintenance, weather."

Pruning, especially, is labor-intensive. "During the growing season, we have to keep cutting back," he said.

Ann Altman rolled her eyes at the need for regular grass mowing. "We do it in tandem," she noted. They operate his-and-her mowers.

There's one weather phenomenon they have escaped, so far. Blackberries bloom later than blueberries, so they aren't so susceptible to early spring frosts, Gene Altman said.

Still, the Altmans are suffering a hitch this year: About two-thirds of the brambles had to be replanted as they had reached their maximum maturity of six years of age.

The new seedlings, plugged into the ground in January, are now about 2 feet tall. Yet, they won't bear fruit until next year.

The patented varieties, Arapaho and Washataw, are more expensive than an ordinary blackberry bramble bought off a garden store shelf because they require a patent fee from the purchasing grower. The Altmans and their pickers are willing to pay a little extra for an easily harvested crop.

But for this season, Ann Altman wrote in an e-mail to customers, the annual full production of 4,000 pounds of fruit will come to an early end.

"We recommend to come as early as possible," she said, "as the berries will be picked pretty quickly."

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

if you go

Down on the farm

Bramble Creek Farms is at 23031 Hayman Road, just east of the intersection of Culbreath and Hayman roads, south of Brooksville. Hours are from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. It is recommended that pickers call ahead to (352) 796-5473 to make sure that there are berries ripe for picking.

Hernando County U-pick farm's blackberries are ripe and ready for picking 06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 12:46pm]

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