A Berry, Berry Good Time of Year

You will be treated very hospitably by Vivian Brock, retired art teacher and lifelong raspberry zealot. If you are even remotely civil, she will fix you a cup of raspberry tea, give you a couple of perfect raspberry plants, autograph a copy of her new book, Raspberry Story, and perhaps even appear before you in her raspberry theme outfit, complete with raspberry earrings made from garnet beads and a raspberry-colored jacket decorated with twining canes and blossoms.

Just don't get all democratic on her and turn the conversation to other fruits.

"Strawberries?" she'll say, backing slightly away from what she assumes is the camaraderie of another fanatic. "You like them. Well, they are the number-one fruit." (Listen for the implied "allegedly.")

"Many strawberries are sold," she continues. "But, as one woman told me at the Raspberry Festival, raspberries are the Cadillac of fruits."

Understood? Good. Now, back to the subject at hand.
Imagine a day filled with nothing but raspberries--which, in the Colorado fall, when most of them ripen, is a distinct possibility.

"I would begin with a raspberry pancake with raspberry syrup," Vivian says. "Then I would go out to the raspberry patch and eat my fill. If I didn't have a patch of my own"--although there is no excuse for this, as they grow wild almost everywhere in the colder parts of the world--"I would buy healthy Colorado raspberries, not the ones they spray. Then I might go talk to people about raspberries and what they make out of them. Vinegars, jams, chutneys...That night, I would eat them with elk and buffalo and venison. I have a recipe for a raspberry sauce so good you could eat it on cardboard."

But not until you have harvested several pint-fuls. To do this, you need to reach in through the thorns and prickers of a raspberry thicket, determine which berries are ripe enough to give way when you grab them but not so ripe that they turn instantly to mush, and plunk them gently in a flattish container. Naturally, you would eat half the berries you found before you got to the end of the row.

In no way is raspberry-picking efficient. But is it rewarding? Only successful oil exploration compares.

In fact, the two processes are similar: You can't believe nature could invent something so rich, and once you develop a taste, you want to HAVE IT ALL.

"Well, I never have," Vivian observes. The raspberry patch in her Cherry Hills Village backyard measures twenty by forty feet and would be nearly impossible for anyone not clothed in asbestos to penetrate. "It's a very healthy patch," she says. "You're supposed to replace the canes every eight years, but these ones have been here for 27. They're called Jewel Maul, and they're almost impossible to find anymore. But here they are."

Vivian has admired a good strong patch all her life and has had one to call her own since she was nine, the year her single mother sent her from Denver to spend the summer with an aunt in the Pacific Northwest. "She lived in a small farmhouse, where a lot of things grew--the roses, the berries," Vivian recalls, "but it was the raspberries that got me. It's the smell, that's what it is. They have it over the Himalaya [berries], the blackberries, the boysenberries. They just have it."

As a young teacher in upstate New York, Vivian discovered berries growing wild and took her first-grade classes out to pick them. Moving from there to Michigan, then to Idaho and finally back to Denver, she continued to produce berries, by cultivation and salvage.

During two sabbaticals from the Cherry Creek School district, she traveled the world, partly for her own education as a teacher and partly because her husband, a retired Presbyterian minister, had become a bead-trader and owned fourteen stores of the same name.

Mainly, however, she was impressed by the roaming habit of the common raspberry. "South Africa had them, Chile has terrific ones, Italy and Czechoslovakia," she recalls, "which, of course, is the raspberry capital of Europe."

By 1997, when she retired, Vivian had enough recipes and herbal trivia for a self-published book, which grew to contain not just recipes for muffins, pancakes and the good-enough-for-cardboard sauce, but also a killer daiquiri recipe, health advice for women and their uteruses, and philosophy. "I'll bet you have heard the saying...it's impossible to be too rich or too thin," she writes in the book's introduction. "There are those of us who would say, '...or have too many raspberries.'"

The raspberry could be all things to all people (it cures both constipation and diarrhea, she likes to point out), and hence, Raspberry Story was "a book the world needed." But how to let the world know? Vivian decided to take a road trip through raspberry country, from northern California through Washington State. Stopping at bookstores along the way, she sold her book in ones and twos until she landed in Lynden, Washington, "where 78 percent of the nation's commercial raspberries are grown."

On the spot, she was invited to appear at Lynden's official Raz Festival this past May, when she toured berry-producing factories, gave a presentation to the wives of raspberry growers, attended a dinner at which ten of her recipes were served, and enjoyed the personal escort of the Washington State Raspberry Commissioner.

"All the surrounding newspapers and radio stations gave me some terrific publicity that will never happen again in my lifetime," she concludes in a written memoir.

She has sold three-quarters of her books and is considering another printing. "Maybe," she says, "but there won't be a second volume. Frankly, I'm burned out."

Stress takes it toll. Where to recover?
"I frequent the Berry Patch," she admits. "What a place."
Sandwiched in a geographic anomaly of Commerce City, south of the old drive-in at 88th and Rosemary and north of the Gala Gardens restaurant, where bountiful fried-chicken dinners are served in a grand building that sits in a vast field, the Berry Patch is marked only by two small hand-painted signs, and once you find it, you still have to park your car and walk down a long dirt road, past curious cows and fields of cabbage, to really be there. Its corporate headquarters consist of a tent, three picnic tables, hundreds of pint containers and Claudia Ferrell, now in the process of unloading 22,000 pounds of pumpkins for the autumn festivities to come.

Married since 1994 to commercial berry farmer Tim Ferrell, Claudia first got the idea for a pick-your-own berry plantation during a wholesome drive through Nebraska with her young nephews. Berry picking, complete with berry eating and berry smashing, was the most popular activity on the trip. She had been growing winter squash and potatoes on her plot and found it harder work than her previous twenty years as a family-practice doctor. This, she thought, would be more fun, and certainly more social.

As it turned out, many of her customers stayed for hours, picking berries, exchanging recipes and just hanging around. "A lot of them are home-schoolers with their kids," Claudia observes. "At a home school, you can get credit for this."

Growing up in rural Iowa, Claudia had always wanted this kind of life, but she went to medical school instead. "I was called by God," she explains matter-of-factly. "Becoming a doctor was a very clear case of intervention." She moved to Denver in 1981 and settled in Park Hill, where she began with a small backyard garden. "It got bigger and bigger," she remembers. "I expanded and expanded and landscaped and landscaped and added fruit trees and pots and containers and started seeds indoors. I even went up to the mountains to collect wild raspberries. What I really dreamed of was a farm."

Instead, she began volunteering for COMPA Food Ministries, a local food bank. She met Tim Ferrell at its annual banquet, and he offered her a few acres to cultivate. She cut her occupational-medicine work down to three twelve-hour days per week--a schedule she continues today--and dug in. After a summer spent farming side by side, the future Ferrells went out for ice cream and formed a more permanent partnership. "And you always hear a woman over 35 who isn't married doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell," Claudia laughs. "I married at 42. Now we live in a 1912 farmhouse southwest of Brighton with linoleum glued on over the hardwood floors. It's perfect."

By the year 2000, the Ferrells will have four acres of raspberries growing there--as well as six of strawberries, the number-one fruit--but until then, they'll continue to lease their place in Commerce City, where two varieties of fall-bearing raspberries begin producing in mid-August and continue through Columbus Day, frost willing.

Just what kind of plants they are is a trade secret, but this much is clear: They will appeal to the harvest lust that clearly lurks beneath the surface of almost anyone. Following a loosely organized "row system," Claudia will arm you with a cardboard flat and send you down your own territory of bushes. You will emerge, hours later, with juice-stained hands and a stomach full of fruit, wondering where the profit margin could possibly be.

"Yeah, well, who says we're making money?" Claudia responds. "Part of the experience is eating while picking, and people come here for the experience. You can play golf, you can go to a park. But to really be outside, you need to pick raspberries.


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