Mashed Blackberries: Having a Bash at Sassafras Hill Farm

By J.D. WATSON | Jul 30, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill FRESH OFF THE BUSH: Vivien Risden examines her berries harvest at Sassafras Hill Farm’s Blackberry Bash in Barnegat.

Barnegat — The sun was not yet high in the sky but cicadas buzzing across the fields hinted at the promise of heat to come. Before the thermometer would climb with the sun on this recent summer morning, a few children spread out among rows of blackberry bushes at Sassafras Hill Farm in Barnegat.

Minutes earlier, Jeanine Cava of Tuckerton had welcomed them to the farm for the Blackberry Bash. Cava, who runs Soil to Soul, a garden-based education and mentoring organization for youth and community groups, had introduced the children to the blackberry basics: the bush, the roots and soil, and – the real star of the show – the berries.

Cava explained how the roots take nutrients and water from the soil, transferring them up the main trunk of the bush, out to the branches, and finally to the fruit. Eventually, the fruit ripens; sometimes, the fruit will get so ripe and so full of juice, it gets too heavy and falls from the branch to the soil. In nature, the overripe fruit will decay and release its nutrients back into the soil in a process called nutrient recycling.

Cava told the children how she had collected some overripe blackberries earlier that morning and showed them how the heavy fruit in her plastic bag had already produced juice from the ones on top squashing the ones below. The children all seemed duly impressed.

With that, Cava brought her charges out to the fields to pick some blackberries of their own.

Dashing into the rows of blackberry bushes with pint containers in hand, the children got to work with gusto. Cava needn’t have challenged the kids to find the biggest or juiciest berries; they seemed to take to the endeavor with – forgive me – a certain hunger.

One of the children, Keegan Bakely of Waretown, proved to be an old hand at picking blackberries. Her mom, Alicia, explained that her family had a blackberry bush in her backyard.

With little heads bobbing in and out of blackberry branches, disembodied voices cried out with excitement.

“Oooh, I got a big one!”

“Mmmm, this one is delicious!”

Young Keegan marveled at one berry which had been in direct sunlight, heating its juices more than its neighbors shaded by the leaves. “Wow, this one is so warm!” she exclaimed.

Tina Mueller of Barnegat, who owns Sassafras Hill Farm with her husband, Jay, said she was delighted with the turnout for the Blackberry Bash.

Mueller explained that her father had a farm next to their house in New England, and that had shaped her childhood.

“Those early experiences left an early imprint. It’s pretty hard to get away from that,” she said.

So after she and her husband bought this property in 2000, she wanted to have some way to encourage children to explore nature.

“That was always part of it,” she said. “Community outreach. I felt very much at home in nature, outdoors. I wanted to share that.”

Mueller and Cava have plans to do similar programs as different produce comes into season – perhaps tomatoes later in the summer. For adults, Mueller said they also plan a canning demonstration using no added sugar. That program will be produced in cooperation with Rutgers University.

Mueller wants to engage her community in a larger conversation. “We grew up with organic, balanced foods,” she explained. “Sustainability, children’s issues, healthy choices – once we get them involved, we hope to give them an appreciation” for some of the food issues that surround them.

In the fall, Mueller hopes to add appropriately themed films, as well.

After a little while, Joe the Farmer, one of the workers at the farm, stopped by to suggest the children move over to the next row of bushes to find a different variety of blackberry. Keegan, who had been a fond admirer of the first berries, soon expressed her newfound opinion of the second variety with all the enthusiasm of a convert. “This row is even better!” she gushed. “I’m never gonna eat those others again!”

Her mom’s friend, Jenna Risden, also of Waretown, teased her, “Keegan, more is going in your belly than your basket.”

As the sunshine temperature rose, the group retreated to where the event had begun – a picnic table shaded by tall pine trees – to begin the next phase of the program. Cava took some of the overripe berries she had collected earlier and demonstrated how one could mash them in a little mason jar to produce even more blackberry juice.

“We’re going to mash the extra ripe ones. Hear that squish?!” she exclaimed, leading one to wonder who was actually having more fun.

Straining the juice through cheesecloth spread over a second jar left some fairly smooth, clear purple liquid. By adding a little flour, Voila! purple blackberry paint.

Distributing supplies to each child, Cava asked the children to mash some of the overripe berries she had gathered, taking care not to get too much on themselves. “I hope you’re wearing old clothes. I don’t know what detergent gets out blackberry stains,” she mused.

With such a challenge before them, the children set to it with fervor. Soon, each had a little jar of purple paint, ready to create masterpieces.

After distributing cards of heavy stock paper, Cava also brought out some orange paint she had made earlier with turmeric and water.

The children worked on their paintings as the adults made their way over to the farm stand, paying for the berries that had been picked and to pick up some treats and some of the organically grown produce from the farm.

Keegan said she had a lot of fun picking the blackberries but the best part had been “mashing it up!” Her friends, Vivien and Thomas Risden, agreed picking the blackberries had been a lot of fun but Thomas was especially proud of the blackberry he had painted, and with blackberry paint!

As Keegan’s mom, Alicia, had asked, “Who would think you could paint with blackberries?”

And in a summer filled with other more complicated distractions, who would think a bunch of kids could have so much fun getting a little dirty and sweaty, making some art all based around the humble little blackberry?

Another Blackberry Bash is scheduled for Saturday morning, Aug. 3. Pre-registration is requested. Sassafras Hill Farm is located at 184 Route 72 West in Barnegat. Visit or call 609-698-1110 for more information.

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