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‘Huckleberry King’ finds heaven on Earth

M

eet Joe Nieman, Huckleberry King. This Porthill native and CO-OP Country Store front counter clerk owns a T-shirt with the moniker “Smokin’ Joe Nieman, World’s Fastest Huckleberry Picker” to prove it. His shirt and a charm offensive, armed with huckleberry chocolate kisses, landed him a spot in 2012 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 northern Idaho and even one Idaho politician. “I received a phone call from United States Sen. Jim Risch’s office in Boise,” he said. “The girl said, ‘I understand you’re the Huckleberry King of North Idaho.’ ” The senator wanted some berries for a luncheon and wondered if Nieman would sell a couple gallons. “ ‘No,’ I told her, ‘I won’t sell you two gallons of huckleberries. I’ll donate them,’ ” Nieman said. Not long after the luncheon, a manila envelope from the U.S. Senate arrived in Nieman’s mailbox. Inside, a folder included a thank-you note, a photo of Sen. Risch holding a huckleberry pie and another photo of a pie cut into pieces on a silver platter. Later, he showed the photos to his coworkers and boasted, “See how my huckleberries get around?” His 2012 huckleberry records show he picked 120 gallons that year. They sell for $35 a gallon, a far cry from the $7 per gallon earned in 1969. “Gas went up, so the price went up,” he said. By March, his logbook already showed orders for 33 gallons, and he fills them on a first-ordered, first-served basis. Nieman’s picking season lasts from mid-July to early October. On a typical day, he leaves home around 7 a.m., sets up base camp by 8 a.m. and picks until 4 p.m. His base camp includes an 8- to 10-foot tree with a yellow or red rag tied at the top and a 5-gallon can with lunch inside. “(While picking), I may wander a quarter mile away from base camp,” SUMMER 2013

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When not working at the CO-OP Country Store, Joe Nieman, above, feverishly picks huckleberries in season. PHOTO BY MARIANNE LOVE Idaho Sen. Jim Risch sent this photo, left, to thank Nieman for his donation of huckleberries for a luncheon he hosted

he said, “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 said. Income from berry picking 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, Ray Delay, said. “That would be just fine – just like heaven,” Nieman said. –Marianne Love SANDPOINT MAGAZINE

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5/8/13 8:27 AM

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Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2013  

Arts, entertainment, lifestyle and recreation for residents and visitors of Sandpoint, Idaho. Feature the cover story on wolf revival; inter...

Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2013  

Arts, entertainment, lifestyle and recreation for residents and visitors of Sandpoint, Idaho. Feature the cover story on wolf revival; inter...

Profile for keokee