The Significance of Raspberries

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BY DAYTONA STRONG

In my earliest sun-drenched memories of raspberries I am a little girl, maybe five or six years old. Squatting down between rows of bushes in my grandparents’ Ballard garden, I brush canopies of leaves aside to search for every last berry. They hide under leaves that are like cocoons protecting larvae; a second pass might uncover one or two still slumbering in their shade.

Today each raspberry I taste brings me back to that place—the cool, blue-hued basement kitchen opposite the garden, my skin radiating the warmth of the sun as I slurp bowlfuls of just-picked berries sprinkled with sugar and topped with a generous pour of cream. Each bite of that summer concoction my Grandma Adeline served tasted like it contained the sun and whipped clouds and rainbows.

My childhood experience is hardly unique—western Washington natives all seem to have their own memories of harvesting berries. “It is part of our culture here,” says Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission. It’s also part of our economy. Typically known for apples, wheat, and hops, Washington also supplies a large portion of the country’s red raspberry crop.

“Approximately $40 million is produced in just farm gate value alone,” says Bierlink. Gate value refers to worth of a crop at harvest—but many farms have packinghouses, and there are also berry processors in the state. Each adds additional value to the raw product. Though raspberries can’t compare with the state’s primary crops ($2.25 billion for apples and $1.18 billion for wheat in 2012, versus $37.87 million for the berries), they rank 24th in the state’s top 40 agricultural commodities.

The key to western Washington’s success with red raspberries lies in its climate and soil. Perennial bramble crops prefer moderate climates that keep them comfortable year-round, with temperatures neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter. The type of soil can vary, as long as drainage is good. Otherwise raspberries are susceptible to root rot.

One small corner of the state is responsible for most of the crop. The 20-mile radius around the town of Lynden in Whatcom County—including the Lower Fraser Valley in British Columbia—produces more than 90 percent of the state’s raspberries, as well as 85 percent of North America’s raspberries for the frozen market. The area competes with Eastern Europe and Chile as one of the three largest growing regions of the world by volume, according to Bierlink.

The early 19th century settlers in the area built their homes and farms on or near the flood plain, where the soils held moisture all summer, says Bierlink. “Immigration in the early 20th century included many Southeast Missourians who had some berry growing history. They settled on the less desirable soils (too well drained, dried up in summer) and perfected irrigated berry growing.”

Production also spills down into Skagit County, as well as Clark and Cowlitz counties in the southwestern part of the state. But as prevalent as raspberries are in western Washington today, they used to be overshadowed by another beloved berry.

“Strawberries were the dominant berry until the 1970’s,” Bierlink says. “The advent of the mechanical harvester, plus a market demand brought on by the troubles in Yugoslavia (a major raspberry growing area), caused a demand for raspberries and an economical way to harvest them.”

For all the nostalgia surrounding picking fresh raspberries in the heat of summer, most commercially grown raspberries in Washington are processed, not eaten fresh. The berries are used in everything from jams and fillings to juice concentrate, and they’re also sold frozen and canned. (Almost all of the fresh raspberries sold and consumed in the United States come from California and Mexico, which can produce fresh berries year-round.)

One farm that does produce berries for the fresh market is Skagit Sun, located in Burlington. Of their five current varieties, the Malahat signal the start of the season.

“Being the first local raspberries to show up, they cause a minor sensation at our farmer’s market stands, snatched up by raspberry starved enthusiasts who have been waiting out the long winter months for the opportunity to indulge,” says Skagit Sun owner Don Kruse.

Washington raspberries are generally available from mid to late June through early August. Farmers’ markets around Seattle tend to see a lot of Tulameens and Goldens. Some of the farms selling at these markets include Hayton Farms, Youngquist Farms, Growing Washington/Alm Hill, Willie Greens Organic Farm, Schuh Farm, and Terry’s Berries.

There’s nothing like the taste of biting into a fresh raspberry picked locally at the peak of the season. Those nubby drupelets, magenta when perfectly sun ripened, burst in the mouth with a sweet-tart flavor. Each individual berry provides a hint of resistance, until the skin breaks and releases crimson juice.

I am not much of a gardener, yet I’m considering changing my ways—if only to possess a few magical raspberry bushes. I want to pick berries with my children in our own backyard garden.

I want them to know what it feels like to have the sun beat against our arms and the green leaves graze our hands as we brush them aside in search of a perfectly plump, sun-ripened raspberry. I’ll watch the joy on their face as they decide whether to put the berry in their bucket or their mouth, and maybe I’ll relive a little bit of my own childhood bliss.

How to Grow Raspberries
Recipe: Raspberry Curd

Daytona Strong is a Seattle-based food writer and recipe developer. She contributes to a number of regional and print magazines and writes about food, family, and her Scandinavian heritage on her blog, outside-oslo.com.

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