Phyl Newbeck, Contributor
It’s been roughly a century since Christy Hagios’ great-grandparents began picking blackberries at their house in Charlotte. “I’ve been picking berries there since I was a little girl,” she said. Hagios’ grandmother, Marion Roberts, purchased the house from her parents and raised seven children there. When it was time for her to move into assisted living, she sold her home to Hagios and her husband to keep it in the family. Since then, Hagios has been carrying on the family blackberry tradition with what is known simply as The Berry Patch.
“For as long as I can remember, all the proceeds from the patch went to the Charlotte Food Shelf,” Hagios said. “The most we’ve ever made was $1,500. We sell pints of berries, as well as jam and muffins.” Hagios wishes she could say with certainty when the berries will ripen, but nature doesn’t adhere to a calendar. “In the past we’ve had a full two weeks of picking from either the third or fourth week of July into August,” she said “but last year we just had two days.”
“The way we’ve always done it,” Hagios said, “is you pick a pint for yourself and another for the stand.” Through that system, Hagios has gotten “free labor” from an assortment of family and friends. Pam Darling, one of her aunts, grew up in the house and shows up every day to pick berries, often with friends. Two other uncles also come by on a regular basis. “It’s like a family tradition,” Hagios said.
These days, the tradition includes Hagios’ husband, John, and their three children. “It’s a full family operation,” Hagios said. “We make jam two or three nights a week. If berries aren’t sold, we put them in a big bowl in the fridge. My husband comes home from work and its full-on— the kitchen is just hopping.” John, with help from their two daughters, makes both seedless and seeded jam, with Hagios taking the role of dishwasher. The kids also help out at the stand, although Hagios admits they don’t enjoy it as much as they did when they were younger. When not staffed, the stand is run on the honor system.
John is also in charge of making the 70-by-75-foot patch more manageable, a process that takes place in late March or early April. He spends two intense days cutting back the old growth and making sure the bushes aren’t higher than chest or neck level, moving the cuttings to a burn pile and also ridding the patch of weeds.
Hagios said some customers have been coming to the patch for years. “A lot of the people in the camps drive by every summer for pints and for jam,” she said. “They get upset if we’re sold out, but I tell them they can go into the patch and either pick an extra pint for the stand or pay for a pint. There are people who love going into the patch to pick, although it’s typically hot and buggy and you need long pants and long sleeves.”
Hagios is happy to carry on her grandmother’s tradition of donating the proceeds to the Charlotte Food Shelf. “It seems like a great place to give money,” she said. “They are so appreciative.” One year, she took her kids along when she brought the money so they could see the results of their labor.
The family has to be careful not to plan any trips or other time-consuming events during the period when the berries are ripe, and Hagios is able to find time around her job as the ad manager for this paper. “It’s a great two weeks,” she said. “It’s a really nice time for my aunts and uncles who grew up in the house and had the patch as part of their lives. My parents will come down for a Saturday, as well.” Hagios said the stand is such a popular part of summer in Charlotte that sometimes there can be 15 people standing around, chatting and eating berries.
A former elementary school teacher, Hagios has dreams of writing a children’s book about the berry patch that would be illustrated by her daughter Olivia. It would be her way of commemorating something that was so important to her grandmother. “I remember bringing neighbors and friends of my kids to pick berries and having her sit on the steps and watch them,” she said. “That’s why we keep doing this.”