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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008 12:57 am

Pick your pleasure

Soak up the season while harvesting berries and apples

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Broom Orchard is celebrating 40 years of family memories with a photo contest. Submit any photo taken at Broom Orchard by October 1. Winners will be announced at Broom OrchardsÂ’ 17th Annual Pumpkin Festival. For more info visit www.broomorchard.com.

Many days, Mother Nature locks you indoors and keeps you there with her sweltering heat or bone-chilling cold, soul-sapping humidity or ear-warping wind, rain, snow, sleet, thunder, lightning or hail.

This time of year, though, she seems to lay down her weapons and summon us outdoors with her most alluring talents – temperatures that are cool without being frigid, foliage that flaunts its festive colors, and best of all, the ripeness of our favorite crops. What better way is there to soak up autumn than to spend an hour or two gathering blackberries, red raspberries, apples, or pumpkins?

Right now, you can pick blackberries at the Apple Barn in Chatham. Owner Gayle Johnson says this year's bumper blackberry crop has turned her and her employees into "pickin' fools – and that's an understatement." Her blackberries are the tame variety, which means they won't hurt you: the vines are thornless and the berries are plump and not nearly as seedy as the wild ones.

"I just had a lady come in with three pounds, and she said she never even moved down the row. They're a piece of cake to pick," Johnson says. She's selling them for $4.50 per pound, $3 if you pick them yourself. She expects the berries to be available through the first few days of September. She will have pumpkins ready to pick in October.

Apple Barn also sells 20 varieties of apples grown just across the street from its store (along with cider, slushies, smoothies, caramel apples, baked goods, fudge, flowers, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cantaloupe, and more), but Johnson allows customers to pick only the pumpkins and blackberries.

If you want to pick apples, head 45 miles south down state Highway 4 to the 88-year-old Broom Orchard in Carlinville, which has been in the Broom family since 1968. Lisa Broom says Jonathans, perfect for covering in caramel, will be ready to pick Labor Day weekend. By mid-September, you can pick vintage Grimes Golden apples, known for their tart, spicy, sweet flavor.

In early October, you can pick a golden Japanese variety called Mutsu, also known as Mutzu or Crispin, that Broom says is good for both eating and baking. Beautiful pinkish Blushing Goldens, one of the few apples that seems to improve during storage, also ripen in early October. In mid-October, you can pick every pie-baker's favorite, the incomparable Granny Smiths.

"There's nothing that's going to have a tart flavor like Granny Smith," Broom says. "I don't think you can compare anything to a Granny Smith."

Apple-picking is easier than you might imagine. You just show up, buy a bag, grab one of the Brooms' little red wagons, and start plucking fruit from the trees. There's no ladder-climbing involved; in fact, it's discouraged, Broom says. She and her husband, Jeff Broom, also have a farm store selling cider, butter, preserves and spreads made from their apples, plus popcorn, nuts, salsa and candles.

If you're thinking of heading to the Berry Patch in Buffalo Hart, about 10 miles northeast of Springfield, owner Jim Orr advises you to call ahead. His red raspberries have attracted more customers than he has crop. He has a waiting list of regulars begging for berries. The only client who can jump the line is his wife.

"If I only have one pint of red raspberries left, and Charmaine wants red raspberries on her ice cream, she gets 'em first," Orr says. "I don't know if it's a wise business decision, but it keeps our marriage on solid ground."

Orr, a retired state worker, has devoted his relatively-small 23-acre farm to all the good stuff — strawberries, blackberries, pumpkins — plus rhubarb and asparagus.

"People either love it or they can't live without it," Orr says of those last two crops, admitting that when it comes time to harvest asparagus, in mid-April, he consumes the first two pounds himself. It's the only crop he doesn't offer on a you-pick-your-own basis.

Orr, 61, says most of his customers have been buying his produce for a decade or more. Their loyalty is the one constant in an enterprise where weather and insects wreak havoc on the bottom line (fruit and vegetable farmers don't get government subsidies). "Every year is different," he says. "You can't have a recipe for doing this."

Apple Barn

2290 E. Walnut in Chatham

(217) 483-6236

Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day,
April 1 until Christmas

U-pick crops: blackberries and pumpkins

Broom Orchard

12803 Broom Rd. in Carlinville

(217) 854-3514

www.broomorchard.com

U-pick crops: apples

The Berry Patch

11471 Lynn Rd. in Buffalo Hart

(217) 364-5606

www.the-berry-patch.com

U-pick crops: red raspberries,
blackberries, strawberries, pumpkins

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