Picking & Selling Wild Gooseberries
by Wesley Hunter of Seymour, MO
The recent article on gooseberries in SFJ (Vol. 44 No. 3) prompted me to write a bit about our own experience picking wild gooseberries on our farm in the Missouri Ozarks. When we moved here in 2012, we, as I imagine nearly everyone does who acquires a small farm, set about learning as much as we could about it. A large part of this learning was becoming acquainted with the flora of the place, learning the names of the trees and bushes and grasses and all else, where they grow and why they grow there, and what their uses are. One of our happiest findings was the abundance of small green striped fruits growing on innumerable bushes across our 25 acres, which we shortly learned were gooseberries. We had heard of gooseberries but otherwise knew absolutely nothing about them, a deficit that was righted by referring to a couple of books on wild edibles (of course they are also grown as a domesticated fruit, which was unknown to us at the time, and since the ones we found were wild we first consulted sources on wild food). So we quickly learned we could eat them, though how wonderful they were was a joy that was withheld from us until that first pie (which, as it happened, was based on a recipe found in the My Small Kitchen section of an older SFJ).
On our farm the bushes are almost entirely confined to the 8-acre woodlot, though a few others grow here and there along the creek, adjacent to the pond, or wherever there are little stands of trees that cast a bit of shade. There are many varieties of wild gooseberries; the ones that grow here on our farm are known as the Missouri gooseberry, Ribes missouriense.
When the woodlot in very early spring is dominated by shades of brown and gray, it is the gooseberry bushes that break this drab monotony by sending forth the first green leaves of the season (barely beating the elderberries). We measure the growing of the season by the growing of the leaves, and then by the opening of the flowers, and then by the growing of the fruits – first just the slightest bulge at the base of the flower, then the size of an okra seed, then a spring pea, and finally something worth harvesting. While going about our daily pasture chores – feeding and watering our growing ducks and chickens, moving the electric fencing to create a new day’s paddock for our cows and sheep – it’s a small thing to wander over to the woods’ edge and check on the gooseberry bushes that grow there. During this time our anticipation builds as we look forward to the day when we can finally say, “They’re ready. Let’s go.” (Actually it’s usually something more along the lines of, “Well, I guess we probably ought to start picking gooseberries this week,” which belies the actual excitement felt.)
Typically the berries are not ready to pick until about the third week of May. At that point there are still many, many small fruits that it would be silly to pick just yet, so our first picking of the spring is focused on those few precocious bushes that we can readily count on to fill our baskets. There is considerable variation from one bush to another; some of this is the result of micro-climate, but some must be genetic, where two bushes growing side-by-side will produce fruits of considerably different sizes. This first picking will be relatively meager, maybe 6 to 8 quarts in total, but we can count on roughly double that amount for each of the following few weeks. Because the market for gooseberries is really quite small, we’re trying to pick enough to make a decent presentation at the farmers market, but not so much that we end up taking too many quarts home. We’ll wrap it up around the last week of June or first week of July, for a total of roughly six weeks of picking.
As the season progresses, the contents of our baskets change: the first two to three weeks all the berries are a beautiful, glossy bright green, and then a few pinkish ripening berries get mixed in, then a few more, and by the time we’re finishing up for the season there is a full spectrum of green, pink, and ripe (or nearly ripe) purple berries. On any given bush the berries seem to ripen in a very haphazard manner, so you’ll get mushy dead-ripe purple fruits growing adjacent to crunchy hard green ones, but as a general rule bushes mature at different rates depending on where they grow. The bushes that grow along the south edge of the woodlot alongside our “hilltop pasture” are always the first to be picked and the first to finish, while the ones that grow down in the bottom of the woods are the last to be picked and the last to finish. I assume this has to do with some combination of available sunlight, soil type and fertility, slope, relative elevation, and perhaps another factor or two. (Maybe there are dryads in the woods that pick the largest berries for themselves? Who can say?) At any rate, having the bushes spread over such a diverse area lengthens our picking (and marketing) time frame, which is a definite bonus. That is, since we can typically sell no more than about 12 to 15 quarts per week, there is a decided benefit to a lengthened picking season where we can only pick about 12 to 15 quarts per week. Were our bushes spread over a more homogenous landscape, allowing us to pick, say, 30 quarts per week, there would still be a market ceiling of roughly 15 quarts, meaning that homogenous landscape gave us no advantages – at least not as far as selling gooseberries is concerned.
By the end of June to early July, though, even those late-ripening bushes will be, well, ripening. Ripe gooseberries are soft and rather mushy and much harder to pick cleanly than the unripe ones. And though they are perfectly edible, to my palate they taste somewhat like a blueberry, only without the best qualities of a blueberry. So they’re fine, but that’s not exactly a great selling point. And anyway, why settle for a lesser blueberry-ish fruit at the exact time that the real blueberries are in season, and when it is the green and unripe gooseberries that provide the most character anyway? So we pick what we can up to this point, and leave the remaining ripe fruits for the birds. This is perhaps something of a roundabout propagation program, too: the birds eat the ripe fruits, perch in some convenient place, and deposit a seed or two, alongside a handy dose of natural fertilizer, when they fly off.
Wild gooseberries are a reliable cropper. In our 10 springs on the farm so far we’ve only been skunked once – and even then we were able to gather enough for a couple pies. That year we had a particularly late frost, followed by an early droughty spell; we’ve had our share of late frosts and early droughts, and have always still gotten a crop, so my guess is that some combination of the two put a damper on that year’s yield. But perhaps the thing that most recommends wild gooseberries is that all we have to do is pick. We gather from bushes we did not plant, do not cultivate, do not prune, in fact do not do anything to except relieve them of a portion of their fruits. As such the only “cost” we have into the enterprise is our labor, which is hardly a cost at all when it is something we look forward to each and every year, and when the work is enjoyable (even taking into the account the unavoidable and probably uncountable pokes from the thorns, the unpleasant buzzing of mosquitoes in our ears, and the requisite nightly tick checks).
On the topic of thorns, gooseberry bushes are at least decent enough to have straight thorns and not the hooked ones of the bramble bushes. We have plenty of patches of wild blackberries scattered about, and by some devious design the plumpest, ripest fruits are always an arm’s reach away from the perimeter of the patch. Reaching in to grab the berries is a relative breeze, but retracting that arm is a different story, with countless barbed thorns poised to grab your sleeves (or bare arms) like so many fishhooks. So while nobody relishes getting poked by gooseberry thorns while picking, at least it’s not as bad as it could be. At any rate, the best way we’ve found to minimize those pokes is to grab the end of a stem in one hand (for me it’s my left hand, with the handle of my basket hanging from the crook of my left elbow), pull it taut, and strip the berries as they dangle from the underside of the stem. By thus stabilizing the stem you are much less likely to get poked.
The pleasures of gooseberry picking aren’t just in the gathering of edible food or in the replaying of an annual tradition; there is distinct enjoyment in being in a lively woodlot in late spring. One year I was picking from a clump of bushes that grows at the base of a large black walnut tree on the eastern edge of our woodlot where it meets what we call the “back pasture.” I was by myself, and there were plenty of berries, so I would spend a fair bit of time with my feet in one spot picking what I could reach. In other words, I was being quiet, not talking and scarcely moving. I kept thinking I was hearing noises in the woods, maybe 20 or 30 yards away, but the brush was thick and the topography was such that I couldn’t see far, and the wind was blowing just enough that I thought it was just as likely nothing more than leaves rustling in the breeze. I didn’t give it a great deal of thought until I heard what was clearly a whitetail fawn bleating out a series of alarm calls. I ran toward the noise and in a few short seconds arrived at the top of a small ridge, spooking an adult deer and a second large animal of some kind. (They left quickly when I entered the scene, of course, and the brush was thick enough I got only the barest of glances.) I stood there surveying the scene, and a few moments later a doe came charging back in and stopped about 30 feet away – right back to her fawn that was still curled up on the ground. The fawn stood up, and his mama, keeping her eyes peeled, eventually took him on back deeper into the woods. Did I interrupt a coyote trying to make a meal out of that fawn (that is, was the second critter I spooked upon my arrival a coyote)? Or was I perhaps witness to an inter-deer squabble where the fawn decided it had had enough? I don’t know, but it was interesting.
On at least a couple other occasions I have picked to within rather close range of other deer. Usually I realize this when I hear the deer give out a vocalized whoosh and go crashing back through the brush, but one time the deer in question gave out a couple stomps from maybe 20 yards away. (The assumption is that when deer are spooked enough to be alarmed, but not spooked enough to flee entirely, they will stomp their feet as if to say “I know you’re there,” prompting whatever it was that spooked them to reveal itself so the deer can better assess the situation.) I never saw the deer through the brush, and it had silently slipped away by the time I picked to where the noise had originated from.
Finding bird nests is another fairly common occurrence while picking. Typically this just means finding an empty, old nest, or less often finding one with eggs in it. But during our first day of picking this spring (2021) we noticed a male cardinal that kept flying rather close by. He never introduced himself, but we assumed we were seeing the same bird over and over, and the longer he stuck around the more we began to suspect there was a nest nearby. Finally as we progressed through that particular patch of bushes we began hearing cheeping, and were able to eventually locate the nest within a gooseberry bush, with four hungry mouths reaching upward expectantly. We bid the baby cardinals good luck and moved to another part of the woodlot to continue picking.
One great benefit around here is that gooseberries grow just fine under our native black walnut trees. Indeed, they thrive; most of our highest-producing gooseberry bushes grow at the feet of our largest and highest-producing black walnuts. Whereas some crops – blueberries and tomatoes come to mind – cannot survive when planted under black walnuts, owing to the juglone exuded from the roots of the latter, it’s a pleasant thing to find such a happy companion plant in the gooseberry.
We sell gooseberries at our booth at our local farmers market, and less often to a restaurant or two. Though it seems perhaps an odd addition to our market booth, since practically everything else we sell is meat, there is typically nobody else at the market selling them and enough customers who are excited to find them. Our gooseberry customers run the gamut: elderly folks who fondly remember eating gooseberry pie as a child (though their memories of picking the berries aren’t typically as fond), younger “foodie” types who are excited to try something new, people who want to bake their dad a gooseberry pie for Father’s Day (which fortuitously happens to fall right in the midst of gooseberry season), and some folks, bless them, who just like to eat the unripe raw berries out of hand. Nobody balks at paying $10 per quart (when the going rate for blueberries is about $8 per quart). To prep them for market we sort out the leaves (there will always be some, no matter how carefully you pick), weed seeds (cheatgrass is the worst offender), fallen oak catkins and other debris, and any damaged fruits that happened to find their way into our baskets. On any given Saturday we can usually count on at least one comment, always in jest, about how we don’t stem the berries, but of course anybody who’s tasted a gooseberry pie knows that the labor of removing the stems and blossoms (“topping and tailing,” in the British jargon) is well worth the effort.
Speaking of the British, it’s worth looking to that side of the pond for suggestions on how to use gooseberries, as they are a much more popular fruit there than here. Toward that end, though I’ve mentioned gooseberry pie a couple times, really what I prefer is a gooseberry crumble, which is more or less like a crisp, only with a higher proportion of flour that results in a texture that is, well, more crumbly, and which I find to be a great way to highlight the gooseberries. The season for green gooseberries also happens to happily overlap with the blossoming of our local elderberries, and those delicate elderflowers, when added to gooseberry concoctions, tend to harmonize quite well. (This pairing, too, is a British thing.)
You’ll often hear about how gooseberries are so tart that they require a rather large quantity of sugar to make them palatable, and indeed most recipes seem to treat the tartness as though it’s a fault and seek to right the wrong, but in my view the tartness is actually the appeal of gooseberries. We like gooseberry desserts precisely because they’re not especially saccharine, and so we tend to add half (or less) of the sugar called for in most recipes. So do that: embrace the fact that gooseberries aren’t sugary and sweet, add a bit of sugar to help balance things, and if need be serve your pie or crisp or crumble alongside a scoop of a good vanilla ice cream (this is why you have a milk cow, after all, right?).
Early on, when we first started picking gooseberries for sale, our goal was to gather enough to pay our farm mortgage for June. Our mortgage is, thankfully, almost preposterously low, but aiming to pay it simply through some wild fruits still seems a worthwhile goal, and is one we tend to meet and exceed without problem. In 2016 we picked 45 quarts and made $360, in 2017 we picked 63 quarts and made $549, in 2020 we picked 76 quarts and made $736, and in 2021 we picked 52 quarts and made $481. (I’ve apparently lost the records for 2018, though I assume it was in the $400-500 range, and 2019 was the year we got skunked.) These are not huge numbers, of course, but they’re something, and sometimes you make a living on a diversified farm with small quantities of lots of things. And there is, of course, the joy in the almost subversive activity of reaping that which we did not sow.