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Painful Lessons from the Blackberry Patch

January 22, 2010

On the 40+ acres where we spend most of our weekends, we have wild blackberry bushes.  Last year, I planned to pick fresh blackberries at the peak of their ripeness and make cobbler, one of my favorite desserts.  In our neck of the north Florida woods, blackberries peak in June.  Throughout the spring I walked around the property, watching as the berries turned from green in March to red in April to black in May.  By the beginning of June, little black corpuscles grew into shiny clusters of ball-bearing-sized berries.

On June’s second weekend, I decided it was time to harvest.  The heat index was at a record in the high 90s.  To defend myself from thorns, sun and mosquitoes, I donned my long-sleeved cotton t-shirt, blue jeans, knee-high socks, Steel-Toe boots, gardening gloves, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hat.  I drank a pint of water, put sunscreen on my face and neck, grabbed my colander for collection, and thought about how good that shower was going to feel in an hour.

My recipe called for two cups of blackberries.  From my previous broad surveys of the property,  two cups should have been no problem.   Tossing the two-cup requirement aside, I had instant visions of filling the colander – 4 to 6 cups – with leftovers for ice cream toppings, afternoon snacks, and oatmeal.  Judging from what I knew I had seen, I was excited about having fresh blackberries every day for the next week.

I started at the scraggly patch close to the house, a 10-foot diameter group surrounding a skinny tree in the middle of the hayfield.  More red ones were there than I remembered, and the black ones weren’t as large as I thought, either.  Not wanting to waste my trip to the patch, I picked a few clusters for the sake of having something to show.   A bit frustrated, I marched 200 yards across the field to the big oak grove, intent on finding better quality there.

On the south side of the elliptical two-acre grove, the sun was intense.  The berries there were slightly better than the first patch, but some had little beetles on them that reminded me of stinkbugs.  I squinted carefully before I picked, sweat beads dripping into my eyes, to make sure no bugs were getting into my colander.  Even if it was a big juicy cluster, I left it alone if there was a bug on it.

About an hour into my venture, sweaty and thirsty, I walked to the east side of the grove.  Not only was it shadier for me, but the shade must have been good for the berries.  Instead of 12 inches tall, some of the bushes were 3 feet tall.  I didn’t have to bend over as much, but the banana spiders found the environment perfect for their webs. Like the stinkbugs, I preferred to avoid spiders rather than kill them or disturb their web.

But, whoa!  Some of the clusters were the size of my big toe (which was now a little uncomfortable in the cotton socks inside the Steel-toe boot).  Yet, how sweet!  And not many stinkbugs.   When I found a patch with no spiders or stinkbugs, it felt like the jackpot, but I had to be more careful. I went to pluck the big clusters, but they were so ripe that my gloved fingers squished them, or they tumbled into the tangled mass of thorns, ticks, or who-knew-what below the branches.  I checked my colander.  My excitement faded.  For ninety minutes of effort, I didn’t even have my minimum.

With my head down, I noticed how soaked my jeans were, covered with thorns, which wet jeans seemed to attract. Yikes!  I felt the familiar sting of a mosquito on my shoulder, through my shirt, which was sticking to my skin.  Ignoring the thorns would be easy, because the mosquito bites were worse.  I wondered if the tradeoff of bigger berries for mosquito bites was going to be worth it.

But I didn’t have my two cups.   I had to press on.   I hurriedly looked up for webs, down for berries, swung my free arm to clear webs and then slap mosquitoes, while trying not to spill the colander.  I looked like a sweaty, disheveled marionette being operated by a 5-year-old.

I stopped again.  “How did someone with an MBA end up with such pathetic productivity?”  I thought.  I was clearly not cut out for the ag business.  My efficiency had to improve or else, no cobbler.  This was an unacceptable result.

I took ten steps back.  From that distance, I could scan the next patch for webs and big clusters.  If no big clusters or too many webs, I moved on.  If big clusters or few webs, I gently plucked easy-to-reach, bug-free big berries. I thought of my speed reading class – keep your eyes moving down the page.  So while I was picking the current patch, I scanned the next one.  Working faster lessened the number of mosquitoes on my shirt. Although I was itching from the previous bites, the rate of new bites was declining.  (That’s what an MBA would tell herself in order to keep going.)  But, I was getting only the best berries.  In ten minutes I covered the rest of the oak grove and transitioned to the trails in the woods.  Productivity problem solved.

Within the next hour I had picked through five shady acres in the adjoining woods and filled my colander.  I wearily strode back to the porch, peeled off my boots and socks, and walked inside.  I put the colander in the sink and took my long-anticipated shower.  Afterwards, rinsing the berries, I thought,  “I could have paid $6.99 at the store.”  Worse, I took the risk of getting Lyme disease from a tick, or encephalitis from a mosquito.

I then thought about other lessons I already knew, but didn’t apply, that morning:

1)  In Florida in the summer, applying mosquito repellant underneath your clothes is not a crazy idea.
2) Sometimes there’s no substitute for experience. Although I thought I was well-prepared,  if I had consulted someone who had already learned these lessons, I would have saved three hours of heat-borne agony.
3) Among all of the “wish I had known thats,” the most disheartening was that the ripest, juiciest, biggest berries aren’t in the sun.  They don’t have to be plucked at the bottom where the thorns are. They grow in the shade.  With the right technique, they fall off the end of the branch into your hand.   (“It’s all in the wrist,” my father, a tennis player, would say.)  Knowing the right techniques makes a big difference in time and quality results.  Even berry-picking has techniques.
4) If quantity is the only goal, then pick every berry on every bush and be done.  If quality is important, then don’t burrow in the single bushes.  Step back and scan the whole patch first.

Considering the physical risks I took, this could have been a very expensive outing.  Was it worth it?

Well, for the short while that I was enjoying fresh hot cobbler with Cool Whip, in clean, air-conditioned comfort on a suffocating June day, yes, it was.

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