Saturday, July 06, 2013

Huckleberry King Joe

Joe Nieman

Joe with the tools of his trade---buckets, pickers, screens for cleaning, gloves and, of course, the sun hat. 

I've been waiting for huckleberry season to be upon us to post my Sandpoint Magazine feature below.  

And, it seems that this year folks are out picking earlier than usual.  I've already seen a few berry photos on Facebook. Could be this weekend may be a good one for getting a few berries in the lower elevations. 

For those who can't or don't pick hucks but still love the tart, unique flavor of Idaho's official fruit, there's Smokin' Joe Nieman, huckleberry picker extraordinaire.  

You can catch him at Co-Op Country Store, if he's not out picking for his long list of customers.  

Of course, it could be that after the story below hit the streets in mid-May, Joe may have had to draw the line on accepting more customers.  

Enjoy his story, and if you can't get Joe to pick your berries, go do it yourself. Huckleberry pickin' has long been a highlight of North Idaho summers. 

 Joe Nieman, Huckleberry King

By Marianne Love

For Sandpoint Magazine

Meet Joe Nieman, Huckleberry King.

This Porthill native and Co-Op front-counter clerk owns a T-shirt with “Smokin’ Joe Nieman, World’s Fastest Huckleberry Picker” to prove it.  His shirt and a charm offensive, armed with huckleberry chocolate kisses, once landed him a spot on “The Price Is Right,” Vegas-style.

Nieman, 68, of Ponderay, keeps a logbook, filled with meticulous berry-picking notes from his 43 years of supplying loyal customers in North Idaho and even one Idaho politician.

“. . . I received a phone call from United States Sen. Jim Risch’s office in Boise,” he explains. “The girl said ‘I understand you’re the Huckleberry King of North Idaho.’” 

The senator wanted some berries for a luncheon. She wondered if Nieman would sell him a couple of gallons.

“No, I told her,” Nieman recalls. “I won’t sell you two gallons of huckleberries.  I’ll donate them.” 

Not long after the luncheon, a manilla envelope from the United States Senate arrived in Nieman’s mailbox. Inside, a folder included a thank-you note, a photo of Senator Risch holding a huckleberry pie and another photo of a pie cut into pieces on a silver platter.

‘See how my huckleberries get around,’ he later boasted while showing his colleagues the photos. His 2012 huckleberry records show 120 gallons picked at $35 each, a far cry from the $7 per gallon, earned in 1969.

“Gas went up, so the price went up,” he says.

By March, his logbook already showed orders for 33 gallons---first ordered, first served.
Nieman’s picking season lasts from mid-July until early October. On a typical day, he leaves home around 7 a.m., sets up base camp by 8 and picks from 8-4 p.m.

Nieman-style base camp includes an 8-10 foot tree with a yellow/red rag tied at the top and a five-gallon can with lunch inside.

“[While picking,] I may wander a quarter mile away from base camp,” he explains, “so I depend on those flags.”

Nieman’s berries undergo several cleaning stages, including cloth and screens for removing leaves, bark, cull berries, etc.  After a water bath and thorough draining, berries are delivered in Ziploc bags.

“When you get your berries, I guarantee they’re clean,” he says.

Income from berry picking has helped Nieman provide for his four children.  Nowadays, extra cash means “fun money” for trips to Las Vegas or Reno, with his new bride Gina, also a Co-Op employee.
Nieman plans to keep on pickin’.

“. . . . he’ll probably die in a huckleberry patch,” his boss says.

 “That would be just fine---just like Heaven,” Nieman says.  

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