|by Jana Jones, student writer|
Most people know that in the summer, thimbleberry jam is a taste synonymous with the Keweenaw. However, Jason Anderson, a graduate student in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, decided to take his knowledge of the red berry to another level.
Anderson presented his graduate defense, "Thimbleberry Jam Production in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties," on Dec. 17. Anderson looked at the thimbleberry in general and the jam industry in the Keweenaw in particular.
"As far as I know, the Keweenaw is the only place that makes thimbleberries into jam commercially," he said. "In British Columbia, the species is actually considered a weed."
The thimbleberry plant has large leaves that block the sun and likes to grow in edge habitats, such as roadsides and edges of clearings. The berry is built like a raspberry, with lots of small sections; the flower is white with five petals.
Anderson found that jam production in the Keweenaw is a social rather than economic experience.
"The thimbleberry is wrapped in social aspects, not moneymaking," he observed. "I don't see it becoming a commercial farm product anytime soon."
Among all the thimbleberry pickers that Anderson interviewed, none grew the berry at home. "I found no person who grew thimbleberries in their garden; I found one person in the 25 people I talked to who had cultivated them in the wild."
According to Anderson, the average thimbleberry picker that he encountered spends 45 hours picking berries, harvests 1.5 pounds per hour, and keeps few records of their picking. "Most people are not out there to maximize profit. They're there to enjoy themselves."
Anderson found similar trends among people who produced the jam. He found that three specialized thimbleberry jam producers made 810 cases of jam, while 10 informal thimbleberry jam producers made 628 cases of jam.
Some constraints on thimbleberry jam production were the absence of cultivated thimbleberry plants, the initial investment to become a licensed jam producer and the popular perspectives on thimbleberry jam.
"Pickers and producers don't think of it as a business," Anderson said. "They see it as a side thing, a cultural experience."
Whether a business or a culture, Anderson did encounter one explanation for thimbleberry jam popularity in the Keweenaw. "Someone told me that the Copper Country berries taste better because it's the Copper Country. One of the people I spoke to told me that the minerals in the soil make the thimbleberries taste better.
"Now, I don't know if that was somebody just trying to sell me jam, or if there's something to it."