The sun rises early on a Green Bluff summer morning, ready to help ripen seven acres of raspberries on a rolling hill at Hidden Acres farm.
By the time there’s enough sunlight to warm Xengyeng and Pheng Xiong, they’ve already picked about a quart of raspberries each.
The 8-year-old cousins arrived soon after 5 a.m. from Spokane on Wednesday with eight other family members. They aren’t alone. Thirty-five adults and uncounted children came to make a few dollars picking in the raspberry patch.
It’s an every-other-day ritual for three weeks each summer at Hidden Acres.
“My kids’ friends had picked up here, and told my kids about it,” says Xengyeng’s mother, Maiyang Vue. “They wanted something to do.”
Most of the other pickers in their end of the patch are Hmong like the Xiongs. Hmong music’s unmistakable Asian sound seeps softly from another row. Adults speak to each other and their kids in Hmong. The kids talk to adults in Hmong and each other in English.
At the other end of the patch the same linguistic dynamic revolves around Vietnamese pickers.
The Xiongs pick berries into buckets hanging from string tied around their necks. When the buckets pull on their necks too hard, they empty them into flat boxes holding 12 half-pint baskets. When a flat is full, one of the kids walks it down the row of raspberry bushes to a shed, where raspberry harvest coordinator Carl Adams takes them, picks out over- or under-ripe berries, weighs them, and gives out a ticket worth $3.50.
When Vong Xiong, 11, Xengyeng’s older brother, brings a flat in for the family, Adams can’t find any bad berries to pick out.
“Hey, these are really nice,” Adams says. “Look at that; nothing but big, ripe berries.”
The berries quickly go into cold storage in a white steel shed at the edge of the field. If things go well, they won’t stay there for long.
“The berries last about a week, which means they have to get out of here in a day or two,” says George Conniff, who started Hidden Acres orchards. “Truckers come through taking berries to Montana, and taking the monkey right off our back.”
On this day, about 215 flats will be picked, and the orders are pouring in. The biggest day this year filled 315 flats. The patch produced just over 2,000 last year.
By 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, a lot of kids have tired of picking. They sit in the shade of the bushes, talking. Soon the screams and laughter of a full-blown game of hide-and-seek drown out the soft music.
But a pink hat shading Maider Xiong, 9, moves slowly, steadily down a row.
“Hey, how’s your spot?” Pheng asks his cousin from the next row to the west.
“It’s OK, but my Mom has a great place. Berries everywhere.”
By noon, most of the adults still are in the field picking, but even the Xiong kids have left. They sit behind the family station wagon eating lunch, talking about what they’ll buy with the money from their morning of picking.
Ger Xiong, 13, Pheng’s oldest brother, says: “I’m going to buy clothes with my money.”
True, 11, his younger brother, says: “I buy candy!”
Meng, 9, another younger brother, says: “I’ll buy action figures.”
Kia, 13, Xengyeng’s older sister, has an older sister’s wisdom: “I think we’ll end up buying ice cream.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
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