Nowadays people ask, “What happened to all the wild blackberries?” Years ago people would pick wild blackberries, wild asparagus and wild strawberries off of the edge of highway and railroad right-of-ways. With these right-of-way edges now sprayed regularly to kill noxious weeds, the desirable plants die off as well. What’s more, 99 percent of all dairy farms in Virginia from the past have gone out of business because it’s difficult to break even. It’s rare to see even a small-scale dairy farm succeed. Beef cattle operations are also cutting back.
The reasons are twofold. Grain farmers can pay much more rent for land than beef cattle farmers because of high grain prices. The high price of grains also causes grain-fed beef margins to be very tight even though the price of beef has risen dramatically. As more and more pastures are plowed up for grain farming—all around the world (especially in Argentina)—there is less and less habitat for blackberries, animals and wild bees. Wild blackberries and bees are in decline.
A way to try and “beat the system,” beef farming, is to raise hormone-free, grass-fed, free-range beef. This type of farming has its limits, too. It requires way more land (pasture) to produce what a feed lot can produce. Also, it takes six to eight months longer (on grass) to bring a steer to market weight. There is no such thing as a free ride in farming.
Years ago, when I went to farmers markets, some people would accuse me of picking all the wild blackberries and leaving none for them. I would try to explain there were hardly any wild blackberries left, to speak of, and that all my blackberries were cultivated. They would look at me like I was crazy and stomp off. I guess they were used to getting them for free (they might wish) or paying 25 cents per quart.
At Snead’s Farm in Caroline County, I grow six different varieties of blackberries. The varieties are chosen purposefully so that they can be harvested consecutively. Each one lasts around two weeks. The first blackberries usually get ripe around the second week of June and the last ones finish up around Labor Day, give or take, depending upon temperatures.
Blackberries have their own unique mix of tart and sweet flavors. It’s fun to watch the expression on a person’s face when they first taste-test a blackberry if they’ve never had one before. They are generally Yankees from up north where blackberries are not native. If the blackberries have some red on them, they are very tart. I always tell them: “The blacker the blackberry, the sweeter the blackberry juice.”