August 17, 2004: “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 --
-- Collins (early midseason), Blueray, Bluecrop, Berkeley,
* 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”
* 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
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.