Bumper berry crop a record for Cowichan farmers

In all the time Ramona Froehle-Schacht has been growing berries and other fruit at SOL Farm just west of Duncan, she’s never seen such a big harvest.

"I think our drier spring really helped the pollination because I’ve never seen such fruit set, not in the seven years we’ve been doing this," she said in July. "It’s really been a terrific berry season. I think the fruit season is great everywhere. My crabapples and my apple trees, my plums, my peach tree – they’re loaded."

Her blueberry patch was also growing like crazy.

"The berries are clustered together like a bunch of grapes. Our only problem is trying to keep water on everything."

Water has been in short supply and not just at SOL Farm.

An early hot season made for some adjustments at the farm.

"One of my problems this spring, not for the berries, but for my early crops that I seed in April or May, was I had to re-seed them two or three times because they just didn’t germinate."

They needed moisture. "I think it was because I just wasn’t used to watering in April and May. So, I kept seeding. I did that three times before I realized that it was just not wet enough." But when the warm weather came on suddenly, Froehle-Schacht was suddenly running to catch up.

"I was so busy digging and planting and seeding and transplanting. Stopping to water is not one of my normal April activities," she said.

But, by midsummer, Froehle-Schacht was picking and picking and picking – raspberries. At SOL Farm, Froehle-Schacht had both red and yellow ones to show. She’s also grown lots of salmonberries and thimbleberries.

SOL Farm has tried several varieties of raspberry looking for the best fit.

"We planted some bigger raspberries closer to the house because we wanted something to pick for our morning granola. The ones down below do taste really good; they’re just not as impressive looking. They’ll be perfect for our [Ampersand] distillery, for raspberry liqueur."

She posted about having a lot of raspberries ripe just before Duncan Daze in July.

Dan Hudson from Hudson’s on First immediately said he’s take them all. Then Chef Fatima Da Silva from Bistro 161 said she’d take some and then renowned food writer and Valley resident Don Genova said, "I’ll pick my own."

They loved the idea of all that freshness. "Suddenly all these raspberries I had picked had homes to go to," Froehle-Schact said.

Genova, whose book, Food Artisans of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands (TouchWood Editions), spent many weeks on the BC Bestsellers list, was enthusiastic about the big berry crop.

"I sampled some of the tayberry jam Ramona gave me. It was excellent, very rich berry flavour, so whenever I see any at the farmers’ market I’ll be sure to pick some up.

"Ramona had a bumper crop of raspberries at SOL Farm this year, so when I had a couple of extra hours on my hand last week, I turned into a U-Pick machine to pick a whole flat of ripe berries."

Genova said he loves the high season, when raspberries and blueberries are both coming on strong.

"I use lots of them – fresh – in bumbleberry pies, and make jams, sometimes with twists, like blueberry and thyme, or a raspberry/peach combination called Peach Melba.

"I also freeze pounds and pounds of them."

His tip for freezing: lay them in single layers on non-stick cookie sheets for the first freeze then tumble the pre-frozen fruit into freezer bags so you don’t have to deal with clumps of berries.

"They can be used to make more jams out of season, but most often my wife and I just cook them from frozen and use them as a delicious compote on our winter porridges or with a little bit of yogurt and maple syrup for dessert," he said.

A summer trip to SOL Farm shows rows of tayberry and raspberry plants with netting covering them to protect the fruit from birds.

"I did see some bird penetration and when I went down to pick the first of the tayberries, all the ones along the top had bites taken out of them by birds," said Froehle-Schacht.

"This is stuff that Saison Vineyard was getting rid of," she said, walking through the area. "I thought, I’ll give it a try. They have a vineyard and there it’s good for the season. I’m picking every other day, so it is a bit of a pain. But, we’re trying it."

Tayberries are starting to show their faces in stores and at markets more widely, moving into raspberry and blackberry territory. "They have a great taste and are getting really popular. They have a short season but they’re very prolific. I would have a full flat by the time I’d picked all these tonight," she said, looking along a row of the plants.

Beyond the berries, the small tree fruits were also producing like crazy, she said.

"Look at this plum tree. We used to have a greenhouse here but we had a fire a couple of years ago and it burned up. And this tree, which is not in very good shape because of that, part of it is still producing beautifully," she said.

The banner year for fruit wasn’t just visible on tended farms, either.

Genova said in July he was also looking forward to harvesting from the loaded blackberry bushes he saw in his neighbourhood.

"That means ‘black and blue’ jam, and also more opportunities to make the Blackberry Dark Chocolate Brownies recipe from chef Kathy Jerritt, featured in my book.

The berry season has spilled well into fall.

"Things on the farm are slowly winding down," Froehle-Schacht posted on Facebook on Sept. 16. "I picked the last of the blueberries yesterday and made muffins. It’s a long season with a daily harvest …I’m off to do a rain dance."