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Cold summer leads to a disappointing berry season in Homer

A clearing near the Homestead Trail on Thursday, August 31 in Homer. This popular spot for blueberry picking in Homer lacks any trace of berries.
Jamie Diep
A clearing near the Homestead Trail on Thursday, August 31 in Homer. This popular spot for blueberry picking in Homer lacks any trace of berries.

Summertime in Homer means berries are ripe for the picking. Unfortunately, people in Homer and the southern Kenai Peninsula may have noticed fewer berries in their gardens and on the trails this year.

Joey Hausler is a school counselor who works in multiple elementary schools in Homer and Anchor Point. In his first summer in Homer last year, people knew him for picking hundreds of pounds of blueberries.

“When I realized that there was all of these wild blueberries to pick, I right away was recognizing that was something I was gonna try to sort of make use of and do something with,” Hausler said, “so it hasn't taken me long to sort of establish myself as sort of a blueberry person around here.”

However, this year, Hausler could barely find any berries around Homer. Hausler said he was getting about a tenth to a twentieth of the berries he did last year, and questioned if it was worth still going out to pick them.

“I've just been making a lot less trips out looking for berries because it just feels like the time is not as well spent when I'm taking a couple hours and picking just like one container's worth, which is maybe just like a couple pounds,” he said.

The poor berry season also led to businesses in Homer adjusting where they source their fruit.

For Louis Maurer, things look unclear. As the owner of Bear Creek Winery, he relies on local fruits and berries to make wine.

The wet weather this year led to a delay for the berries, but Mauer still expects to get a harvest of some sort. Over the years, the winery has found ways to diversify their fruit sources for when harvests fluctuate.

With the berry wines, that could mean relying on frozen fruit from last year’s harvest.

“By freezing the fruit and keeping it stable that way, it allows us to kind of average out the seasonal changes,” Mauer said, “we might get so much fruit in one season that we actually use that for two years, because we get so little the next season.”

Jason Davis, owner of Sweetgale Meadworks and Ciderhouse, produces mead with local fruits and honey. This year, Davis has to lean more on fruit sources outside Homer.

While he’s able to get enough blueberries, black currants and Sitka strawberries for making mead, raspberries may pose an issue, since Davis only sources them in Homer.

“My only concern is that we might run out of red raspberries or golden raspberry if the snow comes before they ripen, because they're just barely starting to ripen right now,” Davis said.

While many berries had poor growing seasons, others thrived in the cold weather. Some produce also did very well. Davis got a bumper crop of nagoonberries, and Mauer had lots of success with rhubarb this year.

Casey Matney, an associate professor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, said the cold, wet weather’s effect on the soil is to blame for the poor, late growing season for the different berries.

“Everything was delayed because soil temperatures barely got into the temperature zone that plants need, which is about 40 to 42 degrees,” Matney said, “And when you look at average daily highs and lows, we didn't get a lot of growth. And so the degree days – or the days when the plants would actually grow well – were really scant across the whole season.”

Matney said the cold weather also meant fewer nutrients released into the soil, and the cloudy days usually cut the amount of sunlight reaching plants by two thirds. All of this led to difficult conditions for berries to grow.

Thankfully, things are looking up. According to Matney, current long term predictions show warmer temperatures than the region has had in the past.

“Next year, any of the plants that we have growing, probably won't be feeling this negative effect continuously, and they'll probably be just fine next year,” he said.

For people concerned for the future, Matney said farmers and gardeners can increase soil temperatures by laying down solar mulch – clear plastic that lets sunlight through and traps its warmth.

In the meantime, people in Homer can enjoy the abundance of rhubarb and foliage that flourished from this year’s weather instead.