Alexa Nienhaus, 12, of Rogue River, reaches under bird netting for blueberries at Wit’s Little Field blueberry ranch, a U-pick operation on the outskirts of Phoenix. - Bob Pennell

Pick 'em while you can

Loren Wittenberg doesn't care much for blueberries, but at the behest of agents at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, he planted a full acre of bushes on his Medford property.

"That's what I had in mind all along was a U-pick," says Wittenberg, known as "Wit."

"It's a community service."

Twenty years later, Wittenberg, 61, and his 58-year-old wife, Dee, are bagging the blueberry business. Their Camp Baker Road property is up for sale, and customers that have come to depend on picking gallons of the Wittenbergs' blueberries every summer have just a scant couple of weeks left to stock up and say their farewells.

"That's sad," says Beth Nienhaus. "I'm glad we got to come one last time."

"We've picked at other places," says the 40-year-old Rogue River resident who has been bringing her family to Wit's Little Field for the past eight summers. "This is our favorite atmosphere, for sure. It's so sweet and quiet, and there's horses."

With views of Rogue Valley Manor, the 14-acre spread is a likely spot for wine grapes, Loren Wittenberg says. If the property doesn't sell by late fall, the Wittenbergs will start peddling the blueberries, a bush at a time.

They already have a list of eager buyers for about 500 plants, which likely will bear for another 15 years and are suited — Extension agents said — to the local Medford clay loam. Although Wittenberg acidifies the soil, the berries aren't quite as robust as those found in the Willamette Valley and on the coast.

"The weather here stunts them," Dee Wittenberg says. "It's a novelty to have blueberries in the Rogue Valley."

More novel still are the gooseberry bushes the Wittenbergs added about five years after the first blueberries. An old-fashioned flavor, gooseberries make a "beautiful" puree for ice cream and freeze well, Loren Wittenberg says. Both blueberries and gooseberries are $1.70 per pound U-pick. The Wittenbergs also sell loganberries, picked from their garden for $3 per pound.

Although it's "exponentially cheaper" to pick her own blueberries instead of purchasing them at a grocery store, a trip to Wit's Little Field is "more than that," says Margie Daly, 52, of Phoenix.

"It's kind of therapeutic ... someone was whistling in the bushes," Daly says.

"My whole neighborhood is out here; it's really fun."

And, of course, there's the flavor to consider.

"These taste better than the ones in the store — a lot better," says 12-year-old Alexa Nienhaus, of Rogue River.

It isn't even necessary to wash the blueberries, Dee Wittenberg tells customers.

"We don't spray 'em with anything," she says. "There's no reason to spray 'em.

"We have some people who pick 50 pounds a season because they eat 'em every day."

That means there isn't much left over for the Wittenbergs, who say they glean the bushes once U-picking is over. Making do with the small, reddish berries, Dee Wittenberg still has enough to bake a few pies and cobblers and put up a little jam.

Losing the blueberries won't be a hardship for Wit, who says he can content himself with a quarter-acre garden of vegetables. But the couple can't say the same for relationships they've cemented over the past 20 summers.

"We do like the social part — when people come," Dee Wittenberg says. "We're going to miss that."

Blueberries at Wit's Little Field should last through the end of the month. The patch at 2588 Camp Baker Road, outside of Phoenix, is open for picking Tuesday and Saturday mornings beginning at 7:30 a.m. Picking ends at noon.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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