REAL TALES OF HIGH VALUE FARMING
Letter from Pheasant Hill Farm
“You know, George, I saw blueberries in the supermarket today for just $1 a pint!” one of our farmers’ market customers said when Melanie and I stopped in the Macungie Fire Co. the other night. We were visiting our daughter, Ruth, who is working her way through college by tending bar at the popular watering hole.
“Oh, no!” I thought. “Here it comes. The BIG hissy fit about prices.” After all, we started out selling our certified organic blueberries for $3.50 per pint at the producer-only farmers’ market in nearby Emmaus.
That was a quarter-a-pint more than the conventional berries of another grower. We brought 160 pints to market one Sunday. More than an hour before the market closed for the day, we were completely sold out. Next week, we bumped our price up to $4, and we sold out again.
“I bought a pint at the store,” she said in an ominous tone. “Never again!”
I about fell of of my barstool, and I hadn’t even touched my vodka and tonic yet.
The woman smiled. “I’m going to keep buying YOUR blueberries,” she vowed. “Those berries from the store were awful. No comparison. There was nothing to them. No taste. I don’t know where they came from, but they were just horrible. There is nothing like fresh and homegrown!”
I’ll drink to that.
Taste! In a word, that captures one of the main reasons for the smashing success of our producer-only farmers’ market in our hometown of Emmaus, PA. The market is only halfway through its second year, yet it is already an institution.
It’s also the unbeatable marketing advantage that ripe, hand-picked blueberries -- and any other local farm products -- have over machine-harvested produce from afar.
Blueberries were the very first thing we planted on our farm when we bought the land back in 1984. We have never regretted the decision. The only thing we regret is not having planted more berries a whole lot sooner, since it takes three years for blueberries to start producing and five to six years to reach full production. With proper care, blueberry bushes may last for 50 years.
Our soil is on the sour side and lays wet in spots, as the old-timers say. Perfect blueberry ground. The first Father’s Day we owned the place, Melanie and the kids bought me six highbush blueberry bushes. We still have those bushes -- and 144 more. With drip irrigation and minimal care, they are thriving and adding considerably to our farm’s bottom line. Blueberries are one of our farm’s most popular -- and profitable -- crops. When the berries are plentiful, a good picker can fill a 2-gallon bucket in 90 minutes to two hours. With our berries selling for $4 per pint, that translates into a gross of $32 an hour.
For an extended picking season, we planted a variety of early to late season varieties:
* Early -- Bluetta, Earliblue.
* Midseason -- Collins (early midseason), Blueray, Bluecrop, Berkeley, Jersey.
* Late -- Coville, Herbert, Elliot.
Two of our absolute favorites are Berkeley and Eliot. Berkeley produces berries the size of the end of your thumb. Taste is phenomenal. Elliot has good size and taste, too. It is also the latest berry around, ripening “seven to 10 days after Lateblue,” according to ”Commercial Blueberry Growing,” USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 2254. In normal years, we’re picking Elliots well into September in southeastern Pennsylvania. Elliot is so late, in fact, that by the time it comes in the birds don’t seem too interested in blueberries anymore.
Beware The Birds
Extension bulletins are full of dire warnings about all kinds of potential disease, insect and other problems with blueberries. In 20 years of growing, the only real problem we have found with blueberries is birds. They love ripe blueberries as much or more than humans. Our blueberry patch is surrounded by wooded fencerows. The birds sit up in the trees watching and waiting for the berries to turn dead ripe. The minute they do, the birds swoop. That’s why we use everything in the book to keep them away:
* Flash tape, both red-silver and the new “rainbow” variety.
* Scare-eye balloons.
* Bird Whistlers, a screaming pyrotechnic projectile that flies 250 to 300 feet, screeching all the way. It’s launched from a small pistol that fires a .22-caliber cap.
* 12-gauge pump shotgun loaded with “Shell Crackers” that explode in mid-air, “Shell Whistlers” that just scream or regular buckshot.
We have never gone so far as to use propane cannons or electronic devices that broadcast actual bird distress calls and predator calls. (All of those devices are more are available from Sutton Agricultural Enterprises, Inc. at www.suttonag.com)
Mainly, though, we rely on netting. We have found that the very best way to keep birds from eating our blueberries is to keep them away from your bushes in the first place. Other growers we know use elaborate and expensive systems of netting stretched across cables suspended from tall posts all around and throughout the berry bushes. We’ve thought about doing that, but such systems are expensive, unsightly and complicate mowing.
We have always netted individual bushes, which is also a pain in the neck. But that’s about the best we could do with the limited selection of netting we could find.
Then this year all of that changed. Sutton Agricultural Enterprises in Salinas, CA, has one-year disposable netting that comes in rolls 14 feet wide and up to 1,000 feet long. That combination of length and width is perfect. I simply unroll the netting on the grass and cut it with scissors or a sharp pocketknife a little longer than the row, so that it drapes completely over the end bushes. To help provide support for the netting, I drive 6-foot wooden tomato stakes in the ground about every sixth bush. (Metal T-posts work, too. Just put plastic caps on them to keep from snagging the netting.) Then -- without ladders, hired helpers or exotic suspension systems -- I simply lift one side of the netting up over my head and pull it over the top of the bushes and posts. The netting cascades all the way to the ground on both sides of the bushes, creating a birdproof barrier that is quick and easy, cheap and about 99 percent effective. I leave a break between bushes every 75 to 100 feet to make it easier for pickers to move back and forth through the rows.
Sutton makes both disposable, one-year netting and heavier, permanent netting. I bought the cheaper, disposable netting for a test. It is holding up so well that, with careful handling and proper storage over winter, I’ll probably be able to use it again next year.
A Little Blueberry History
Although blueberries are a native to North America, they are still a relative newcomer in our modern diet. “Until I was 34 years old, I had never seen a blueberry growing,” farmer-author Gene Logsdon wrote way back in 1974 in the classic Rodale book “Successful Berry Growing.”
“I had always pictured blueberries as adapted only to sandy, desolate areas along seacoasts where nothing else would grow. And while blueberries will grow in many such places, they will do just as well, if not better, in rich garden soils, even clay soils, if such ground is acid enough (pH 4 to 5.5).
“The blueberry is our newest domesticated fruit. Only about 50 years have elapsed since Elizabeth White and F.V. Coville began to crossbreed selected wild blueberries from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey to develop the first highbush berries for commercial production. Since then, blueberry culture has grown by leaps and bounds -- propelled onward by great consumer acceptance. In fact, no one knows when, or at what point, demand will peak and level off. Fruit marketers know, for instance, about how many apples can be sold in any given year in America. Not so with blueberries. Not enough people have eaten blueberries yet to know the ultimate level of acceptance. In all likelihood, consumption will increase steadily for some time. Not only does the berry taste good, it packs, ships and keeps well, too.”
In the 30 years since Logsdon’s prophetic “no one knows” comment about future for blueberries, demand has exploded. Blueberries are now replacing tobacco as the No. 1 cash crop in some farm states such as North Carolina. The top blueberry states in order of production are Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Georgia, Washington, North Carolina, Florida, New York, Indiana, Arkansas and Alabama, according to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Total U.S. production in 2001 was 200.2 million pounds (worth $165.2 million), up eight percent from 2000.
Recent research findings will only keep the demand growing. In addition to fighting bad cholesterol, blueberries have now been found to be the best source of anti-oxidants, which neutralize “free radicals” that can lead to cancer and other age-related diseases. They are one of the foods listed in Steven Pratt’s new book “Superfoods RX: 14 Foods That Will Change Your Life.”
And that is why we are getting our soil ready now to triple the size of our blueberry patch by planting 300 additional blueberry bushes this fall.
For More Information:
“Organic Blueberry Production” is available at
A.G. Ammon Nursery, Inc.
Rt. 532, Box 488
Chatsworth, NJ 08019
Phone: (609) 726-1370
DeGrandchamp’s Blueberry Farm
15037 77th St.
South Haven, MI 49090
Phone: (269) 637-3915
Bird Netting Supplier
Sutton Agricultural Enterprises, Inc.
746 Vertin Ave.
Salinas, CA 93901