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Peak Pick: Raspberries

As August rolls into September and the weather starts to cool, summer berry supplies evaporate rapidly. I always feel like I have become a giant when I shop the strawberry and blueberry displays at our stores during this time of year because the container sizes get progressively smaller as fewer strawberries come out of the fields and fewer blueberries off the bushes. Here in Watsonville where the global buying office is located, we see fewer farm workers in the strawberry fields as the long summer harvest season in the north country winds down and growers prepare to move production south again. Way north of us, the large-scale blueberry fields in Michigan and Washington State are slowing down as well. Soon, British Columbia and some small farms in Maine and Nova Scotia will be all that remain of this North American native berry. But, as these production giants give way to inevitable decline, cane berries emerge as the toast of the fall. The most common varieties of cane berries we bring into our stores are raspberries and blackberries, but ollieberries, boysenberries and loganberries are part of the family too. From the same plant family as the rose, cane berries come in an astonishing range of varieties and, depending on where they are grown, can also have huge swings in size, flavor and texture. If you are like me and have wild blackberries in your yard, you will already know that, like their rose cousins, the plant's primary line of defense is the painful thorns that run the length of their stems (or canes). They are also hardy plants - almost impossible to remove once established. Commercial fields are planted in long, tall rows supported by wood and wire fences. The plants are cut back at the end of the production season and they will go dormant for four to six months. A raspberry or blackberry field will have a productive life of four to five years, depending on the area and variety. Raspberries are at their best in late August and September, having had the whole of summer's sunshine to grow and concentrate sugars. They also need an exacting combination of warm days and cool nights to mature and color - similar to strawberries so they tend to grow well in the same areas. You may be lucky enough to find locally grown cane berries - mostly in the cooler, northern states. Cane berries harvested in the fall have the added benefit of not needing to grow under hoops and plastic like early season cane berries harvested in the late spring and summer. This means production costs per acre are lower and returns to the farm are higher. It also means there are lots of raspberries available - and just in time too! If, like me, berries are a big part of your family's diet, cane berries, especially raspberries and blackberries, are the ones to choose. Many thanks to Bob Flood for contributing to this post.