Story by Ammie Bryant, Editor
Photos provided by N40 Berries
If you aren’t paying close attention, it is easy to blow right past the turnoff to North 40 Berries. Located north of town, on a dirt-packed lane, the pick your own blackberry patch is just a ten minute drive from almost anywhere in Stillwater. The country roads are lined with tall grass, brambles, and trees, reminding me of my youth when I explored the wild Oklahoma countryside.
After thirty years of working in research at OSU Vet Med, Darla Black and Richard Eberle have branched out to experiment with the pick your own berry model of blackberry farming. They enjoy picking their own berries and had been travelling to Sapulpa for several years to do so, when one morning over coffee they decided to put in their own berry patch. They thought it might be something they could do in their retirement.
Two years later, they planted 800 seedlings. The plants grew well and in 2016 they had their first crop of berries ready for picking.
Darla and Richard grow four varieties of blackberries: Apache, Natchez, Osage, and Ouachita. Each matures at a different rate and vary in size and sugar content. For example the Osage are a little sweeter than the Natchez. Planting different varieties allows for the blackberries to be available through the middle of July.
There are advantages to picking your own blackberries. Besides knowing where you food is coming from, the blackberries are allowed to fully ripen on the vine before being picked. This means that they are much sweeter than store-bought blackberries that are often picked prematurely to ensure firmness during shipping. As an added perk, all of the plants at North 40 Berries are thornless, making picking painless compared to searching for berries found in native bramble patches.
As scientists, Darla and Richard approached blackberry farming like they would any experiment. They researched their subject carefully, implemented their gathered knowledge, collected the data from the results, made observations, and formed conclusions. “It’s a learning experience,” said Darla. “Each year is different.”
Agriculture is a different kind of science from what the couple is accustomed to in their professional lives. “It doesn’t follow a nice, neat timeline,” said Darla who became interested in horticulture after admiring her neighbor’s beautiful flower garden. That interest led Darla to take a master gardener class that has provided the knowledge she needed to grow her own flowers, vegetables and the blackberry orchard.
“We aren’t sure when the berries will be ready for picking,” explained Richard. I visited them on a blustery day in mid-May when the blackberry patch was blooming and the berries were green and firm. The weather is a variable in this experiment that does not cooperate with nice, neat timelines. “When they begin ripening it will happen quick. They should be ready by the first of June.” (Update: The berries are ready! N40 Berries picking season begins June 6 and will be open during regular picking hours through mid to late July when the canes cease to have fruit.)
Word about the pick your own berry farm spread gradually through the picking season last year. They had a few Saturdays towards the end of the season when they were packed with pickers and nearly ran out of buckets for visitors to use. Richard estimates, “Last year we sold three to three and half thousand pounds of berries.”
Unsold berries did not go to waste though. Richard and Darla donated blackberries to several organizations and sent the rest to Cocina San Pasqual in Perkins, Oklahoma to turn into the blackberry jam. They have the jars of jam available for sale.
Richard and Darla’s daughter, son-in-law, and two grandkids have helped the couple with the project from the beginning. Their daughter is also a photographer and her husband handles the website. The family all works together on picking days to manage the traffic flow, answer questions, and take payments from visiting pickers.
During the 2017 picking season, Richard and Darla plan to open North 40 Berries to the public on Tuesdays 7-11am, Thursdays 5-8pm, and Saturdays 7-11am and 5-8pm. “Last year we were open 4-7pm and it was still too hot so we decided to push it back an hour.”
As we walked through the neat rows of the blackberry orchard, Darla and Richard stopped periodically to tie back a cane here and there ensuring that the plants were protected by the trellis they have created to support them. “It’s hard not to work on things that we see need to be done when we come out here,” said Darla, with her hands full of young plants sacrificed to the high Oklahoma winds.
There is always work to be done in the orchard—no matter the time of year. “At the end of the picking season last year, everyone asked what we would do with our time now,” she chuckled. “We had to cut the plants back after that. It probably took us another two months just to get the orchard cleaned up.”
North 40 Berries is located at 8920 N. Western Road. Visitors can call 405-385-9386 with questions or visit N40berries.com to confirm pricing as well as picking dates and times. Be sure to check out the recipes on their website too!
After visiting North 40 Berries, be sure to try this recipe for Berry Crisp!
6 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour, finely ground
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp white sugar
¼ tsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 cups of your favorite berries (can use mixed)
1 tbsp white sugar
1 small lemon, grated rind
Mix together the first five ingredients in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter with your fingers, a fork or a pastry blender. When the mixture is beginning to hold together and looks crumbly, set it aside.
Rinse berries and drain well. In a small dish baking dish, lightly toss together berries and 1 tbsp of sugar. Spread topping over fruit and bake in preheated oven at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is light golden brown and fruit is tender. Juices will bubble around the edges. Serve with ice cream or yogurt.
Serves: 4 Calories: 200 Total Fat: 6g Saturated Fat: 3.5g Cholesterol: 15g Sodium: 65mg Carbs: 35g Fiber: 3g Protein: 3g
Recipe Source: OSU Department of Wellness