A local berry farmer is hoping to preserve the fruity craft taught to her decades ago as a young girl.
And though winter has slowed down production, the cold weather has hardly stopped Ellen Mast, owner and operator of Berry Good Farm, from providing perhaps Franklin County’s most famous canned fruits.
In 2006, Mast started sowing seeds for a “you-pick” berry farm, she said, but the endeavour eventually evolved into a canning operation that now has piqued area residents’ sweet tooth.
“That’s how it was designed — as a you-pick ’em,” Mast said of the berry farm, 2309 Riley Road, Ottawa. “I started the jams and jellies as kind of, ‘What do I do with this extra fruit? Nobody picked it today, and we’re not going to let it rot.’ And then we started making jam. ... People just love it.”
Spanning 20 acres, Mast’s farm cultivates blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and asparagus for area residents to pick during harvest season, she said. During harvest, Mast collects the remainder of berries not picked by her customers and either freezes them for her family to use throughout the year, or begins the canning process for jellies and jams, she said. And recalling the process, Mast said, is as simple as remembering her childhood.
“I learned from my mother,” Mast said, adding that she learned to can fruit at about the time she learned to walk. “It was just the lifestyle. We’d garden, gather fruit and we’d preserve it.”
Mast now has passed on the nearly lost art of canning fruit to her daughter-in-law, who has in turn shared the craft with friends, Mast said.
Mast’s jam has three primary ingredients: fruit, sugar and pectin, an ingredient used to thicken the substance until it reaches the consistency of jelly or jam. When fruit for jams or jellies isn’t available on the farm, Mast said, she scours local sources, including farmers markets, for ingredients. To can the fruit, Mast uses a Swedish-made juicier, which essentially looks like a stock pot stacked between two sauce pans, though one portion of the apparatus is attached to a hose through which the jelly or jam travels. From there, Mast said, she carefully places the jelly or jam into canning jars.
The process of canning fruit, however, requires careful attention, as the product can spoil and grow harmful mold, bacteria and yeast, Rebecca McFarland, family and consumer sciences extension agent for Frontier Extension District No. 11, which serves Franklin County, said.
“Many people don’t realize that canning food is a science,” McFarland said previously, adding that fruit and vegetable canners should review the extension office’s website — www.frontierdistrict.ksu.edu — for the latest, researched-based information. Mast said she follows guidelines stipulated by the extension service.
Despite eight of her 20 acres being dedicated crops, Mast recently has had trouble meeting consumer demand. Last year alone, Mast, along with her husband, Norman Mast, harvested about 1,500 pounds of berries, she said.
Part of that inability to meet demand, though, is the result of Kansas’ current drought, Ellen Mast added.
“[The drought] has affected us tremendously negatively,” Mast, who works full-time at Olathe Medical Center, said. “We’ve watered as much as we could, but it’s something we never had anticipated.”
Of the farm’s variety of jams, which include peach cobbler, blackberry, strawberry, raspberry and blueberry, “razzbarb” is the favorite among customers, Mast said. The popular jam is a combination of rhubarb and raspberry, she said, and typically sells the best.
While the farm can be demanding at times, Mast said the smiles and sweets ultimately are worth the energy.
“It’s challenging in a good way — I like the challenge,” Mast said, noting that berry farming requires plenty of time analyzing the soil’s composition and adjusting its acidity to better suit the plants. “It’s great to see something grow.”