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The strategy is to drive to a remote mountain destination, locate and pick the berries, clean them, pack into bags, and keep them fresh and perky until a buyer can be found in some nearby town. All things considered, the profit margin is thin and it requires good planning and teamwork to pull this business venture off without going in the hole.
We gathered the berry supplies, including containers for picking and storing, ice, a wool blanket, clean towels, and plastic freezer bags. A friend made us sandwiches, and with basic survival gear to last several days, we headed for the mountains.
Huckleberries grow wild in the Northwestern US between 2,000 and 11,000 feet. We were not sure where we would find them, but decided to try a national forest where we had picked many years ago. When it comes to locating the little nuggets, you’re on your own. Many locals harvest the berries and they won’t tell you where the good patches are.
We happily found berries on the first road we tried. It was a dirt road with quite a few rocks strewn about. Being late in the season, we had to drive way up to the top of the ridge. We saw four or five other rigs up there and assumed the people were there for berries, but didn’t actually observe anybody picking.
The berries in the patch were small, but I was glad to anticipate recouping the $30 I’d invested so far.
I picked a container full and was back at the car cleaning and sorting them, thinking about where to set up camp for the evening, when a car pulled up. It was a couple with a flat tire. Their lug nuts wouldn’t come off, so my son and I drove back to the nearest town on a mercy mission to get them some Fix-A-Flat. I got myself a can as well and a Subway sandwich. So, another $20 gone from the wallet. With my peace-of-mind-in-a-can and full bellies we drove back up to the stranded motorists, who gave us $20 for our troubles.
It was getting late and we decided to spend the night with friends about 30 miles away, instead of setting up camp. Back down we went. My son cleaned his berries and bagged them up there.
The next morning, I was determined to sell our booty before heading back up the mountain. I found a buyer at a coffee shop in town and sold all we had, a gallon and a half, for $50.
The second day we found a thick patch of big berries. The hillside was steep, strewn with logs, and hard to navigate. At one point my son slipped and spilled berries he’d spent an hour picking. Minus $20.
We picked two gallons and were back at the car cleaning and sorting, when a warning came over the radio about a storm with big winds and rains traveling our way. We decided to get off the mountain and drove about 50 miles to our property. I made several stops along the way to sell the berries, but no takers.
In the morning the owner of a little resort quick stop bought all we had for $60. We needed to get back to our other lives and decided to do a bit of leisurely scouting along the way for new berry territory. That’s when we found the motherlode. It was another ridge, nice and flat on top, and packed with fat berries. So we picked and cleaned another gallon. By then, it was dark and we headed back to town, where we ran into a lady who bought the bag for $40.
Out of curiosity, I did a search for huckleberries on Craigs List. Loads of people are selling huckleberries, just like during the Great Depression. We had been fortunate to sell all the berries we picked.
I decided we could probably make a profit on that last spot, but it would have to be soon because the berries would only be good for another week. I found a buyer at a farmer’s market — a jam maker who said he wanted to buy 10 gallons with no stems and no bleed in the bag. So another berry picking foray was planned.
I figured we had three days of picking before our ice completely melted, and that without distractions and an early start, we should be able to pick and clean three gallons a day. Four would be nice.
My son picks two gallons to my one. I pick selectively and attempt to keep leaves and stems out of the container. He just picks and sorts out the dross afterwards. I clean my berries dry by rolling them on a wool blanket. He floats his quickly in water. I think they keep better cleaned dry. He says it doesn’t matter, as long as you get them out of the water really fast. Quite a few of his berries had little stems attached, which we sorted out, planning to detach, but I’m still packing them around in my cooler.
Some people use “scrapers,” commonly sold as “huckleberry rakes” to harvest the wild berries. I’m against it because I think they are rough on the bushes and, like I said, I pick selectively and prefer to leave berries that are small, unripe, or overripe on the bush. People who ruin the bushes in a quest to make a profit inspire legislation to regulate picking. I would rather have the liberty to pick freely and responsibly.
Here is an article on the politics of huckleberry picking.
Everything started out good. Rain showers were predicted over the next few days, so while my son picked, I set up a large lean-to with a tarp where we could sort berries and sleep. It was a sweet little spot where the moon shone into our “bedroom.” Then I picked berries until dusk. That night my son was quickly hit with a case of strep throat and went down for the count.
I cleaned all our berries the next morning while he stayed in bed sick, waking up occasionally to hack and moan. I didn’t float his berries because there were over-ripe ones. I wanted to sort them well to minimize “bleed” and keep the buyer happy. So, I meticulously inspected and selected each berry and ended up with about a gallon-and-a-half. It took four hours. I picked and cleaned another half gallon before calling it quits.
The next morning I took the camp down and we headed to the doctor. I sold the two gallons of berries for $75 on the way. After basic expenses, then paying for the doctor and medicines, and a motel room for him to rest, our wallets were both pretty much back where we’d started.
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