Although an East Coast resident might think huckleberries are enjoyed only by the bears and birds in the Cascades, Washington State residents know they are perfect for pies, too. Beyond that, the local marketers have expanded their market into syrup.
Unlike the sugar maple, the huckleberry is a nearly impossible crop to farm. Despite the best efforts of horticulturalists at Washington State University, the huckleberry refuses to be domesticated. That means operations like Hidden Acres Orchard near Mead, Washington, have to rely on pickers who seek out the wild huckleberry patches and sell the berries to them.
“This year was a terrible huckleberry season,” said Caitlin Gaines who runs Hidden Acres with her husband, Nick Simchuk, and daughter, Arianna. In a good season, they like to buy 800 to 1,000 gallons of huckleberries from locals and process them into syrup, pies, jams and jellies. This year, they were able to get only a fraction of that volume.
Just as the East Coast prides itself on maple syrup production, the Pacific Northwest craves huckleberry syrup. And while Washington State wild huckleberry syrup is the backbone of the market, both Oregon’s and Washington’s huckleberry producers have gone well beyond syrup in their marketing.
Although some of the huckleberry items available mirror those offered by maple producers, there are other items that might pay off for maple producers. They have a wild huckleberry jam that pairs nicely with toast or muffins. They also offer a huckleberry muffin mix.
Some huckleberry producers even offer huckleberry tea and huckleberry coffee.
There are jam kettles on premises at Hidden Acres, so they are able to control jam and jelly production and quality. Huckleberry-peach and huckleberry-apple butter are popular lines. An interesting side note is that Hidden Acres runs its farming operations on biodiesel.
Marketing efforts there parallel those of maple syrup producers. “We sell to the Metro Market (in nearby Spokane). But we quit shipping to Seattle,” Gaines said. Like many maple syrup producers, Gaines finds shipping is a hassle. Buyers crave their products but cringe when told about the shipping charges. Syrups and jams in glass bottles are heavy items and require packing.
“I ship retail all the time. But it is really expensive to ship bulk jam due to the weight,” Gaines said. “People don’t want to spend the money.”
However, there are outlets for all Washington State wild huckleberry products in tourist centers ranging from the Sea-Tac airport in Seattle to downtown markets and other venues. Washington State wild huckleberry goods are available on the internet from several shops, including Hidden Acres Orchard.
Although they do not offer a huckleberry-shaped candy the way maple producers market the tasty maple leaf-shaped candies, some marketers do offer huckleberry taffy. It is a presentation that might be a good seller in the summertime along the Atlantic Coast at seashore resorts. A maple taffy version would be the perfect complement to saltwater taffy.
Different growers offer at least three kinds of wild huckleberry candies. The first is the traditional chocolate bar with wild huckleberry. A bit different is the wild huckleberry cordial candy. A maple cordial could be a good seller at many maple outlets. The huckleberry growers also offer a bark candy, a white chocolate product filled with wild huckleberries.
Another one of the tastier items the Washington growers sell at retail is wild huckleberry vinaigrette salad dressing. Maple might be a difficult product to incorporate into salad dressing unless the food scientists are careful not to make the product overly sweet.
If you prefer natural sweets, check out the wild huckleberry honey offered at some outlets.
Huckleberries do not grow on trees. The huckleberry, a sister of the more common blueberry, grows in the wild. There are a dozen species of huckleberry, most found between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. They come in blue and red varieties, growing individually or in clusters throughout Washington and Oregon. The picking season is short, covering about six weeks from late July into mid-September. A gallon of plain berries sells for around $65 and that price has been inching ever upward, especially recently.
“Last year was a bad year, too,” Gaines said. Back-to-back lean pickings have made it rough for sellers and buyers alike. Looking forward again to good years, she noted that they will freeze the berries, a process that does not change their taste nor their usability, and process the huckleberry crop around their major items like apples, blackberries and pumpkins.
Lastly, to clean up the market, there are huckleberry producers who even offer bars of huckleberry soap. If you are not so sure that a maple syrup-scented soap would be a huge seller, keep in mind that there must be the potential for linking maple and soap. So, for the creative maple syrup marketer, there is money to be made.