Summer’s Best Date-Night Activity: Berry Picking at Columbia Farms U-Pick

Berries are priced by the pint, not the pound.

U-pick berries at Columbia Farms. (Courtesy of Columbia Farms)

Early on a Saturday morning, as I walk out of the Portland State University Farmers Market with a prized triple-pint package of fresh strawberries in my clutches, a woman on her way in flags me down.

“Are those Hoods?” she asks. “They have Hoods?”

Indeed, they do—which is why dozens of Portlanders are willing to set their alarms on a weekend and line up to buy berries by the flat. Pacific Northwest summers are as short as they are sweet, and we all know we have to hustle if we don’t want to miss out.

But as drool-worthy as farmers market wares can be, nothing beats berries fresh from the bush. And at Sauvie Island’s Columbia Farms U-Pick, you can not only pluck your own Hoods straight from the source, but also Sweet Sunrises, Mary’s Peaks, and a whole plethora of raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, as ripeness allows.

Dave and Diane Kunkel, co-owners of Columbia Farms and high school sweethearts born and raised in nearby Hillsboro, planted these fields in 1990. Back then, they raised raspberries, marionberries, boysenberries and blackberries to be individually quick-frozen and sold by companies like Costco.

The u-pick portion of the business started almost by accident circa 1997, when Dave’s then-business partner planted an acre or so of strawberries for his two young sons to tend. “They had absolutely no interest in it,” Dave told me—so they asked Diane to take it over and manage it as a public picking field.

“She started the business,” Dave admits.

Today, about 90% of the farm’s fruit goes to public picking or is sold pre-picked on site, while 10% is sold fresh to Zupan’s Markets. Some 80 of the property’s 840 acres are planted with more than 15 varieties altogether, including harder-to-find gems like Double Gold raspberries and Pink Lemonade blueberries. (These latter berries are unmarked, so only the most persistent pickers will find them.)

During Portland’s frenetic summers, the berry fields are open Tuesday through Sunday, starting bright and early at 9 am, just like the farmers markets. But for the past few years, the company has begun offering what it calls Twilight Picking Hours on Wednesdays from 5 to 8 pm. The event was the brainchild of the Kunkels’ daughter, Megan Hallstone, who’s been behind the scenes performing administrative duties and running Columbia Farms’ social media for years, and will soon join her parents in part ownership, Dave tells me.

Along with offering berry-hungry Portlanders the opportunity to sleep in—or just, you know, go to work—the later hours are an excellent date-night opportunity, Diane confirms. When I ask if she sees lovebirds in the fields on Wednesday evenings, she laughs.

“Sometimes, they don’t even pick berries!” she says.

Indeed, the stunning locale and cozy farm atmosphere make for a romantic setting even if you only amble through the fields and moon at each other, or bring a picnic, as Diane says many couples do. Although it’s only 40 minutes or so from inner Portland, it’s a whole different world on Sauvie Island, with sweeping views of the surrounding hills and a kind of quiet you just can’t find in town.

But make no mistake. The berries are also worth your attention, as any finger-stained patron will tell you. And they’re priced by the pint rather than by weight, so you can happily fill your half-flat box until it’s nearly overflowing.

Best of all: the Kunkels’ official policy on eating while picking.

“Please do,” Dave says. “That’s part of the experience.”

Good thing, since it’s basically impossible not to.

GO: Columbia Farms U-Pick, 21024 NW Gillihan Road, 503-621-3909, 9 am–5 pm Tuesday and Thursday–Sunday, 9 am-8 pm Wednesday.

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