Pulling up to the wide farm gate on Hayman Road, anticipation of the sweet, yet slightly tart flavor of fresh, juicy blackberries has a grip on me. This is my second year visiting Bramble Creek Farm and I have a vision to fulfill – and a bucket!
It is an idyllic scene; slowly touring the hill with verdant, green grass on either side and a few grazing cows. Pull in and park under the magnificent grandfather oak tree and walk over an arched bridge surrounded by lush ferns, elephant ears, and oak canopies. Directly ahead are rows of trellised blackberry bushes as far as the eye can see. To the right is a golden barn adorned with a front porch and several chairs welcoming guests to sit a spell.
Ann and Gene Altman began their u-pick blackberry farm in 2004. Each season Bramble Creek Farm opens on Tuesday evenings from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. and Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to noon, beckoning blackberry enthusiasts to come and gather their fill. “Having staggered days allows the berries to ripen between pickings, providing a better experience for our guests,” Ann tells me.
Normally harvest is between late May to mid-July. Mother Nature has seen fit to begin the season a month early which may result in the season ending sometime in late June. The farm’s answering machine at 352-796-5473 is kept up to date with the latest picking information.
The Altman family purchased 12 acres at 23031 Hayman Road in 1997. They moved and built their home after their oldest daughter Jenifer graduated from high school in 1999. They planted their first row of blackberries when their youngest daughter Megan was in high school. Megan helped decide that the thorny variety just wouldn’t do!
In his younger days, Gene grew 200 acres of row crops including peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, and watermelons. After several tough years Gene decided to return to college to get his education in Civil Engineering. He began working at SWFWMD in environmental engineering developing flood plain maps.
“Today I am proud to be working with the agricultural community in the Farms Section at SWFWMD. I think of farmers as the first environmentalists. Wise agriculturists protect the land and water resources to protect their farming investment,” Gene states with purpose.
When asked why blackberries instead of another crop, Ann shared the story of visiting Mrs. Frazell’s thorny blackberry farm in Land O’Lakes and falling in love with the experience. “I had never been blackberry picking before. We went down there and I loved it! The fruit was marvelous and it was fun. We began our plan.”
Each variety of blackberry bush has its own characteristics, including firmness, size, yield and early-mid-late seasonality. The Altmans have tried many varieties over the years.
“We found the thorn less blackberries to be sweeter, not to mention eliminating the scratches and cuts we would get when picking them. Megan and I were charged with that task in 2004. When the thornless varieties proved to taste just as good, if not better, I told Gene to pull out all those bushes and plant the ‘good stuff’,” Ann explains.
Ann continues, “We select the varieties to plant based on the sweetness of the berries, not the yield because we have a quality over quantity philosophy here. The blackberries we grow also retain their structural integrity better than the thorny ones did. I can keep them in the refrigerator for up to a week after picking and they are just as good.”
Ann makes wonderful blackberry jams and they are now available in the new barn. She makes both seedless and seed-in without pectin and they are delicious and are comparable or better than high end jams found in the supermarkets. The barn also houses locally grown honey, bird houses, high end wood crafts made by neighbors and friends, and soaps from North Carolina…and eggs! Ann has several hens that lay fresh eggs daily.
Gene makes blackberry and fig wine, generously offering a taste to most anyone who stops by. Perhaps one day they will open a winery on the farm.
For now, blackberries are in abundance here. The Altmans will gladly point you to the best location to pick on your visit. Blackberries are best picked when the drupelets are plump and full of flavor. They should be fully black. Red areas on a berry are not ripe yet and will tart the berry’s flavor.
For your comfort, you want to wear hats, sunscreen, and clothing that protects against sun and bugs. Wear old shoes with closed toes to protect your feet and reduce tripping on uneven terrain. It is recommended to bring a cooler to transport your berries home.
It is not appropriate to smoke, or chew gum or tobacco in fields and is always a good idea to wash your hands before eating. Pets should not be brought to the farm. Well-behaved children are welcome.
Bramble Creek has a portable toilet on site, supplies the tools for holding your berries while you pick and bags for taking them home after your selections are weighed and paid for. They sell water to help insure you stay hydrated while picking, but are fine with you bringing your own refreshments.
Come out to Bramble Creek Blackberries to enjoy the fruit, the wine and the atmosphere. The berries are $5/pound for u-pick and $7/pound pre-picked (call to request pre-picked berries). It is a fun place to bring the family, or go it alone; your taste buds will thank you. But get out there before the end of June, or the blackberries will be gone!