Blueberry picking is good at Cain’s Orchard

Wisconsin is not known for its blueberry production, which means you’re in for a sweet surprise when discovering a patch.

Before this month ends, cars will clog the pathways of Cain’s Orchard, which also grows grapes and at least two dozen varieties of apples.

Up to 3,000 people travel from as far as Chicago to pick blueberries on Saturdays. Some arrive hours before the orchard opens with the ringing of a bell at 7 a.m. It turns into a charming family outing in a pretty and secluded setting, just a couple of miles off of I-94.

“They just run,” owner Kevin Cain says, to describe customer reaction to the bell ringing. Showing up with kids is encouraged, but dogs are not. Early birds get free coffee. Up to 10 tons of berries are harvested per picking day, which tends to be weekly (but call first, to verify the dates).

“Sure, we’re selling blueberries,” Kevin says, “but we’re also selling entertainment.”

It takes up to a dozen people to orchestrate car parking. People in wheelchairs are welcome; employees find a place that is flat and level for them to do their picking.

Ice cream buckets are filled with up to nine kinds of highbush berries, and they grow on 20 acres. Some berries may be the size of quarters. Although herbicides aren’t used, the crop is not organic because of fertilizer applications. Fencing, to keep deer away, surrounds the fields.

The business is about picking your own product, and it began after Kevin and his wife, Diane, bought a weathered, 160-acre farm in the 1970s, shortly after they married. “We were too dumb to know better,” Kevin jokes. Little by little, they transformed the property, cosmetically and with regard to crop content.

“Apples didn’t have the production that I wanted on the lower ground, so we planted blueberries,” Kevin says, giving Diane credit for the transition. He grew up on a dairy farm near La Crosse; she is a registered nurse.

Hills surround and shelter three sides of their property. “No wind gets in,” Kevin says, and the microclimate is a good match for the berries.

A small gift shop (formerly a shed) stocks jams, salad dressings, syrups and other items that come from Upper Midwest harvests. “If Wal-Mart sells it, we don’t,” is how Kevin puts it. “And we try to limit the blatant commercialism because that’s just not our style.”

The lineup of six cash registers is evidence of how busy this place gets. A bucket of freshly picked berries averages $8, which is $1.15 per pound. It is not possible to avoid the labor and simply show up to buy berries.

Blue Ray, Berkeley and Elliot are types of highbush blueberries that can survive in a northern climate. Each looks, tastes and ripens a bit different. The bushes are pruned, in rotation, every six or seven years.

The Cains list both their orchard and residence phone numbers on their website. So do they get a lot of oddball calls?

“If we didn’t like people,” Kevin says, sidestepping the question, “we wouldn’t do this.”

He describes his customers as “easy to deal with,” with a sunny disposition, “not ‘concrete’ people but active people who probably like to hike and bike.”

Cain’s Orchard is at W13885 Cain Road, Hixton. For more: www.cainsorchard.com, 715-963-2052. The specific dates and times for fruit picking will depend upon the growing conditions of the year, but the first picking probably will be July 19. This year’s crop is healthy, says Diane, who expects six weeks of picking for the public – but that, like much of farming, is subject to adjustment.

The Cains provide free tractor and wagon rides during the apple harvest in September and October, until their seasonal business closes at the end of the month.

For more about where and when to pick your own berries, check out the Wisconsin Berry Growers Association picking guide at www.wiberries.org. Or, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to WBGA Brochure, 211 Canal Road, Waterloo, WI 53594. Berry farms are listed by county.