By Lauren Stepp
Pamela Zimmerman remembers picking wild blackberries with her mother and “mammaw.” They always looked for ticks, hornets and rat snakes as they filled their pails, but one July they turned around to see a mountain lion eyeing them.
In today’s time, panther sightings are unheard of. If the big cat still haunts eastern woodlands, it remains sequestered in far-flung places. In that way, Zimmerman reckons panthers are like the small-scale family farm: rare, hidden and at risk of being phased out.
“Maybe the older generation understands where their food comes from, but they’ve sure forgotten,” she says. As the owner of Zimmerman’s Berry Farm, an 80-acre Madison County holding, she can’t forget where her breakfast jam and raspberry strudel is sourced.
The 2.5-acre berry patch is cradled in a small glen flanked by a creek. It’s here that the feral forest hesitates and land transforms into neat rows of black and red raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.
“I own mostly mountainside with about six acres of bottomland,” says Zimmerman. She and her late husband purchased the property little by little. Initially, the land was meant for tobacco since growing the cash crop had become a family tradition of sorts. Her mother and father did it, as did her grandparents. But it began to lose its market value in the late ’90s and early 2000s, so Zimmerman sought a niche few high-country farmers dared to fill.
“To my knowledge, I’m the only pick-your-own berry farmer up in these parts,” says Zimmerman.
The cold winters and scorching summers keep the pickings slim when it comes to Madison County berries. As do other forces of nature. Last year’s drought hurt her bounty, for instance. In years before that, it was floods and late May frosts. “It’s a gamble anytime you’re dealing with agriculture,” she says. “But I try to pick heartier plants.”
Manure also does the trick. Zimmerman’s Berry Farm isn’t certified organic, but pesticides and insecticides are nowhere around. The horses do a good job producing organic matter and a local sawmill provides organic mulch. Occasionally, new bushes may get some fertilizer, but all that’s kept to a minimum.
Zimmerman likes to be transparent about the growing process when cars start piling in around mid-July. Of course, prime berry picking season really depends on the weather, and relaying that information seems to be the biggest challenge. That’s where the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) comes in.
Each summer, the nonprofit organizes the Farm Tour. This year’s is set for Saturday, June 24, and Sunday, June 25. Zimmerman has participated for six nonconsecutive seasons.
Essentially, folks purchase a weekend-long pass and can visit any of the 20 farms in Buncombe, Madison and Henderson Counties. The aim is to bridge a consumer-to-grower connection, says ASAP development director Scott Bunn.
“ASAP’s goal is to connect people to their food, farms and the agricultural heritage of the region,” he says. “We also help local farms gain exposure and increased marketing opportunities.”
ASAP has certainly delivered. Zimmerman says she gets more customers from the Local Food Guide, an annual publication that lists local growers, than any other marketing venture. ASAP has also been instrumental in helping her secure grants for a drip irrigation system and, more recently, a wood stove.
“I’ll use that to heat the water to do my jams,” she says. In these mountains, fresh preserves are just part of the berry picking experience.
And it’s certainly an experience. Coming to Zimmerman’s Berry Farm is about more than filling up a bucket. “We’re back in the mountains a good ways, so you might only see one car pass,” she says. “For some, it’s the first time they’ve been outside in a while.”
Even the grownups get to hooting and hollering in the creek. Of course, the real fun is grabbing handfuls of juicy berries. Just watch for ticks, hornets and rat snakes—and big cats too.
Zimmerman’s Berry Farm is located at 2260 Revere Road in Marshall. Tickets to the 2017 ASAP Farm Tour are $30 when purchased online or $40 when purchased in person. Each ticket admits a carload. For more information, visit asapconnections.org.