By Moira Blazi
Huckleberries are special. Folks have tried for hundreds of years to cultivate the plant, and have mostly failed. That’s because the modest, unassuming, huckleberry bush only likes to grow way up high in the subalpine forest, the biotic zone immediately below the tree line, which, in our area is usually above 4000 feet.
So, as most of us know, in order to get these sweet, tangy delicious berries, folks have to go to them, up the mountain, past the purple bitterroot and the crimson Indian Paintbrush, and yellow Goldenrod, up to where the trees are looking a little straggly and the thimbleberry grows.
Many local people are avid pickers, and know special picking spots, often guarded fiercely. All these folks know that picking is a very labor intensive endeavor, and to come home with a gallon of these purple gems is a very good day. Most restaurants in our neck of the woods offer some form of the berry in season, buying small batches from local pickers, but, these days, it seems that huckleberry products are everywhere, readily available in supermarkets, and gift shops, in the form of jams, candies, sauces, even huckleberry infused beer and vodka. Every wonder where these large and small companies get enough berries to produce on such a large scale?
The Montanian recently visited with Jessie Gibson, one of the larger scale pickers in our area, who is part of the network of pickers who supply fresh berries to regional distributors like Azure Standard.
Besides picking, Gibson is an active firefighter and is working on a nursing degree. Up on the mountain, in a nice “juice hole”, Jessie and I picked and talked. “I consider myself a forest fruit farmer” he said with a grin,” I’ve been picking some of the same bushes for 30 years.”
Jessie started picking when he was 6. “When I find a good patch, it’s like entering into Narnia,” he said, “a picker is a farmer, we have got to take care of the bushes.” Although he does use a comb picker, he says he is always careful to leave some berries for the casual pickers and the bears. “If a bush is yellow, It is probably because a bear has been in it, they tend to take the bark of” he said “These berries are pure purple gold,” he added “and I can trade them for mechanic work or even burgers at the riverbend”.
After the berries are in the bucket, they have to be cleaned and sorted. That’s where Jessies dad Del Orsborne and his crew come in. An old mushroom picker, Osborne built a sorting chute just for the valuable berries. “The more rain we have, the better the berries” Osborn told The Montanian “in a perfect year with sunny days and rainy nights, we can process a couple thousand gallons.” The berries are carefully sorted out, as Del put it, “If you wouldn’t eat it, throw it out.” Not many berries were being discarded when the Montanian visited the operation, and the carefully padded catching bucket was filling up fast. “You won’t believe how many people are out there making huckleberry products” Orsborne told the Montanian, “We sell fresh bulk berries to canneries in Bigfork, Kalispell and Idaho, and to Azure Standard, who distributes them all over. We were eating Huckleberry cinnamon rolls in a restaurant in Joseph, Oregon one time, and found out we were eating our own berries!” He added with a smile. The Orsborne crew also sells locally, mostly by “word of mouth” to local folks, especially around the holidays. “We sell to the McLaurys and we used to supply berries to Helens Huckleberry candies” ( a local maker of hand made huckleberry cordials in business a few years ago). They sometimes hire extra help at 10 bucks and hour, and Orsborne even signed up with the County Probation dept as an outlet for offenders to work off their fines. “Not one person showed up” he said. “It’s a labor of love” added crewmember John Olsen, “sometimes we take people out picking, they seldom come back after they find out how much work it is.” he added.
As you would expect, the crew has had its share of bear encounters. “I saw a bear kill a calf elk two weeks ago.” Orsborne recalled “Now that’s not something you don’t see often. If we are not seeing bear, we are not in the right patch” he added with a smile. Although use of the comb pickers is controversial, the Orsborne crew were quick to remind me that they are careful not to injure the plants. “If we were destroying the bushes, we would put ourselves out of business” added Olsen. Orsborne also pointed out that the bushes need to be picked to continue producing at full capacity, because, if all the berries fall and seed, the plant will stop bearing. As Orsborne put it “I just want people to realize that we are not out there destroying things, we want more people to pick, it helps the bushes.”