Weather steers huckleberry season

Harry Menser of Sandpoit packages some huckleberry jam in a gift box for a local retail store. (IOJ photo)

by IOJ staff

SANDPOINT, Idaho — Harry Menser has been involved with huckleberry business for nearly a quarter century. The 84-year-old North Idaho resident says he has seen the business through good and bad times. He started out with three other partners and he is the last one standing. “Me and my wife, and a good friend and his wife started working berries nearly 25 years ago,” he said. “I’m the only one left.”

Menser is the former Superintendent and Horticulturist at the University of Idaho’s Sandpoint Research and Development Center and was instrumental in organizing north Idaho farmers in establishing a huckleberry industry in the early 90s. That’s when he met Elizabeth and Jack O’Brien. He and his wife Betty and the O’Briens soon formed Gem Berry Products. The only surviving owner, Harry has been dedicated to all things huckleberry since 1992.

Though some folks are optimistic about this season’s crop. Menser thinks otherwise. “My own impression is that because we had that extended drought here throughout most of the spring, followed by the tremendous heat,  I don’t think there will be much of a crop. I hope I am wrong with my estimation and if I am wrong I will be delighted.”

According to some North Idaho berry pickers, ripe berries are showing up inteh mountains earlier in recent years. (USFWS photo)
According to some North Idaho berry pickers, ripe berries are showing up in the mountains earlier in recent years. (USFWS photo)

He said that huckleberries are a pretty important crop to a lot of people in Northern Idaho and across the state. “I don’t depend on it for my livelihood, but I want to see people who do benefit from it to continue to have that opportunity,” he said. “If the weather stays warm like it has been, and the frost stays away, I could foresee people picking hucks through the end of September.”

The huckleberry dollar

Menser explained that the price of huckleberries has steadily increased over the years.

“When we started this business people would line up outside of our building with buckets of berries and we would pay them $1.85 per pound. Nowadays hardly anybody brings their berries to us and when they do I’m willing to pay $4.25 per pound.”

Huckleberry jam and syrup are big sellers for Gem Berry Products (IOJ photo)
Huckleberry jam and syrup are big sellers for Gem Berry Products (IOJ photo)

These days, most of his huckleberries are imported from Washington, as the majority of people picking in northern Idaho are doing it recreationally with family and friends.

“It’s definitely part of our culture in the inland northwest,” said Menser while packaging some gift boxes for an order ready to be delivered to some of Sandpoint’s local stores. “These huckleberries have always sold themselves.

“If the weather stays warm enough people could find themselves in the mountains with a bucket and some purple fingers for a few more month,” he said.

This year’s berries could be hit or miss. “Experienced pickers tell me the later crop, when you get into late August, is when the abundance of berries will occur,” he said. “I also had one person tell me that he was not optimistic about that August crop. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Historically huckleberry picking started in August. “I’ve been in the huckleberry business for nearly 25 years and I see the berries coming earlier each year,” Menser said.

“I’ve had three calls and I’m ready to buy some if I can scratch some money together. It’s been rough these past six or eight years. We were operating at a fairly nice profit in 2006 and 2007 and then the economy went sour of and so did the berry business.

“I’m 84 years old and I want to keep doing it; and it gives me a purpose.”

Panhandle berries

The mountains around the Panhandle are famous for their huckleberries. The round, purple berries are native to north Idaho and are the official state fruit. Seasoned berry pickers concentrate their efforts near abandoned logging roads, forest fire burns and timber harvest areas, all places where the berries grow more profusely.

Black Bear cub (Ursus americanus) in a huckleberry patch in the autumn in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA
Black bear cub (Ursus americanus) in a huckleberry patch in the autumn (USFWS photo)

Black bears and grizzlies also like berries, a primary source of carbs. If you encounter or see a bear, it is best to retreat and not to infringe on the bear’s berry beat.

By mid-June, some berries on south-facing lower slopes are ripe for picking. Good picking lasts as late as October on north slopes. Abundant huckleberry picking spots are available throughout north Idaho and historically the best picking is between late July and early August.