At the Peak of Ripeness

Berry Pickers in Wal-Mart

Summer’s bounty is coming to ripeness all around us! I’m fortunate to live in the farming area of the state. I look out at grain fields, grown by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Extension Farm, where they have trials to see what sorts of crops can survive and thrive in our climate, and my apple trees’ fruits have their first sign of blush color to them.

My neighbor has a large farm and grows all sorts of vegetables and fruits. His father, Dr. Dearborn, moved his family to the Mat-Su Valley in the 1950s because they had heard about the unusual growing conditions here, and he was hired at the Extension Farm as their botanist arborist. At the time, nearly all land was up for grabs, so the Dearborns located their farm just across the road from the University property. Dr. Dearborn was the first to pioneer growing apples in Alaska. Since President Roosevelt moved starving farm families to the Mat-Su Valley in the 1930s, as a relief program for the families, and to provide fresh food for the new Army bases in Alaska, farmers had been discovering what was possible in our summers.

Typically, there is still snow on the ground in late May/early June. By Solstice, we have reached nearly 22 hours of daylight each day. Summer days are long, but there are not that many of them…by late August, it starts to frost at night and hard freezes come not too far into September.

Dr. Dearborn found that a full-size apple can grow large but there wasn’t enough time in our short season to go from woody and fibrous to sweet and ripe, so he started hybridizing to achieve a smaller apple. He experimented with Siberian rootstock and achieved an apple which is smaller than most apricots. It is a full apple cultivar, sweet and very tasty, unlike tiny sour crab apples. His varieties make up the majority of the apple trees growing in Alaska now, and I have three of them at our B&B (because our B&B home was previously part of their farmland and the eldest son built this home in the 1970s). We will harvest those the minute they are ripe in late August, if we can beat the moose to getting them! Several years, I’ve thought, “tomorrow, we’ll pick apples,” then when I come out from the house the next morning, I see that there are only apples at the verrrry top of the tree…the moose have beat us yet again! ..Sigh…They know *exactly* when everything is at peak deliciousness around our yard!

Among the dozens of farm families feeding Alaska’s population, locals know to look for Van der Wheele potatoes, sweet Rempel carrots, and the Dinkels have been frequent winners of the giant cabbage prize at the Alaska State Fair, the largest coming in at over 138 pounds! Because of our cooler soil temperatures, root vegetables like Yukon Gold potatoes are prized for their higher sugar content. They are firmer and what chefs call “waxy,” which can make them hold up better not only during cooking (to not turn mushy) but also to last longer in storage.

More on the “wild” side, this is the time of year locals’ thoughts turn to berry picking. You can tell where the blueberry picking is good if you’re driving along and see an area with cars off to the side, and lots of rear ends up in the air, as people bend over to scoop up wild blueberries among the shrubs. Blueberries, raspberries, golden raspberries, salmonberries, high bush cranberries, crowberries and currants all favor acidic, more “poor,” rocky soils, so they thrive on the lower slopes of mountains and hillsides. If you go berry picking, it’s not hard to gather a five gallon bucket for the freezer with a berry scoop, which you can even buy at Wal-Mart. Just be sure to be bear-aware while you are out scouting for berries! Guests are welcome to borrow a can of bear-spray to attach to your belt for hiking or berry picking while in the mountains around the B&B.