When I opened an e-mail last week, I could almost hear the big, juicy "plop" as the lure hit the water. The bait was an invitation to come watch a blackberry pie demonstration at a nearby fruit farm. I love blackberries and have always been puzzled that they are so underappreciated among the picking fruit, so an opportunity for a blackberry dessert was enough to reel me in.
The blackberry patch in question is located at Lawson Brothers Farm just east of Vinland (www.lawsonbrothersfarm.com). There, on a few acres of the family homestead, Gary and Karen Lawson, as well as Gary's brothers Dennis and Stan and their families, decided in 1997 to develop a U-pick operation as a retirement investment and began planting thornless trailing blackberry vines.
Now they are tending about 800 feet of Triple Crown berries and a similar quantity of Hull, which are a bit tarter. Right now, at the beginning of blackberry season, a steady stream of customers from Lawrence to Kansas City is picking the berries as they ripen.
Although customers do the picking, this is not a passive investment for the Lawsons. Gary explained that the vines require a fair about of care and maintenance, including drip irrigation, trellising, soil-amending and fertilizing.
"It yields a really strong cash flow for the acreage involved, but for the acreage involved, there's a lot of labor," Gary said.
In 2004 the Lawsons began getting calls from the Johnson County area as word of their berries turned up on the Internet site pickyourown.org, which includes nationwide listings of self-service opportunities for everything from berries and stone fruit to pumpkins and Christmas trees.
Gary says he is mildly surprised that the vines have fared as well as they have. The trailing thornless blackberries were bred for a milder climate, but so far they have thrived here and now spill over the tops of their trellises.
The Lawsons also will have fall-bearing raspberries next month and hope to have spring raspberries next year. They also have strawberries for early spring picking.
On Saturday, Maryhelen Maggard, a home economist from Kansas City, Mo., was at the farm to demonstrate the preparation of a blackberry pie that doesn't require baking if you use a prepared crust. This is a simple yet tasty dessert that also can be made with other varieties of berry.
Blackberry Cream Cheese Pie
8-inch graham cracker crust
8 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 ounces whipping cream
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
3 cups blackberries
1/2 cup sugar
To make the filling, mix the first 3 ingredients until smooth. Beat in whipping cream for 2 minutes. Pour into the crust.
Combine the cornstarch and water to make a paste, and stir until the lumps dissolve. In a saucepan, combine the paste, berries, sugar and salt. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes or until the mixture is thick and bubbling and the syrup is clear. Let cool, and then pour over the cream cheese filling. Chill several hours before serving. Makes 6 servings.