Letter from Pheasant Hill Farm

Blueberry Blues
Part 2: After chuckling all the way to the bank through the summer, this farmer is now singing the blueberry blues. High-value can quickly turn into big-loss if you're not careful. Time to protect your assets! Click here for Part 1.

By George DeVault

Editor's NOTE

George DeVault was editor of New Farm® magazine from 1981 through 1991 -- and a long-time champion of local food systems and innovative direct marketing approaches to high-value farming.

He, his wife Mel and 23-year-old son Don farm near the village of Vera Cruz, PA, a little over an hour north of Philadelphia. They've been farming there organically since 1985. They extend their growing season with 6000 square feet of greenhouses, and sell cut flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables through farmers' markets and directly to customers on their farm through a subscription service.

George continues to edit the Russian language version of New Farm® magazine, and in their spare time, he and Mel have edited and published six books on farming and market gardening.

Almost immediately after I was hired to create the New Farm® web site, I called George for ideas and help ... and he responded.

He showered me with articles he'd written for the Russian New Farm® which had never been printed in the U.S.: a two-part series on Joe Salatin's poultry operation, and a great profile of Steve Moore's innovative greenhouse operation. And he snagged us a translation of a fascinating story about one woman's successful effort to homestead in Russia.

He also passed on many helpful observations, including an email note: "Looking quickly at NF web site, struck me that maybe it's a little heavy
on traditional crops, livestock and marketing." "You're right," I answered, "we haven't gotten up to speed on high-value crops, diversification and
direct marketing. Want to help us get started with a monthly column?" And so was born this Letter from Pheasant Hill.

For more on Pheasant Hill Farm, click here.

November 9, 2004: Whenever I go outside to check the greenhouses just before bedtime, I always carry a strong flashlight. From time to time, I sweep the light around our nearby fields and woods just to make sure the temporary electric fence is still up and everything else is OK.

The last two nights, three or four pairs of eerie, green eyeballs stared back at me out of blueberry patch about 40 yards away.

What the heck?

What are deer doing in the blueberries this time of year? No berries are left. Maybe they're munching a few leaves for a midnight snack.

So I whistled, yelled at them, clapped my hands a few times. The deer threw up their white tails and bounded off into the night. Problem solved, or so I thought, and toddled peacefully off to bed.

Brother, was I ever wrong! Next afternoon I walked through the blueberries on my way to some other task and was horrified to see what the big attraction was in the berries. The young bucks in the herd had been rubbing their velvety antlers clean on the blueberry canes. Some canes were completely girdled. The thin bark had been stripped all the way around for two to three feet.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. At least four 15-year-old bushes were completely smashed to the ground, the canes splintered into kindling. I couldn’t believe it. In 20 years of raising cultivated, high-bush blueberries nothing like this had ever happened before. Buck rubs were a common sight on fruit trees and saplings in the fencerows and woodlots. But the deer had never bothered our blueberries. Why now?

Suburban sprawl, I guess. As more and more woods and fields are transformed into "house farms" in our part of southeastern Pennsylvania, deer become a bigger problem every year. But I didn’t have much time to worry about all of that. It was getting late in the day. I had maybe two hours of daylight left. Then Bambi and friends would return to the blueberry patch that had blessed us with a record crop this summer (see Blueberry Bonanaza! for more details).

I had to do something to keep the destructive deer out of the bushes, and quick! But what? Can’t sit out there all night with a spotlight and the rifle. The Pennsylvania Game Commission frowns on that, big time.

Then it hit me -- electric fence. It keeps deer out of our vegetable and flower fields all season. Why not fence the blueberries?

That’s part of the beauty of temporary electric fencing. Its quick!
In less than one hour, I had two strands of hot tape (name brand
IntelliTape) pulsing 9,000 volts around the entire blueberry patch.

Just let Bambi touch his wet, black nose to that! He’ll get the message to KEEP OUT!

That’s the other nice thing about electric fencing. It is darn effective. Yet most people don’t believe that when they look at what we call our deer fence. “Why, a deer can jump right over that!” they say. And they’re right. The fence is only about four feet tall. Deer could easily sail right over a fence twice that height.

But that’s not the point. This fence is not a physical barrier. It is a psychological barrier. We’re messing with Bambi’s head, a technician at Premier Fence in Washington, Iowa ( patiently explained when we first bought this fencing more than 10 years ago.

The half-inch wide tape is white, with a black stripe up the middle, like a white tail in the air. That alone spooks deer and puts them on guard. Deer see only black and white and shades of gray. They don't see color, which is why hunters’ blaze orange safety clothing doesn't scare deer. Anything that contrasts sharply with the natural world immediately catches a deer’s eye.

The tape also moves like it has a life of its own. It bounces up and down even in a slight breeze. Strong winds make it twist, jiggle and dance, hum, sing and scream like a banshee.

Besides, the big-field Iowa farmer at Premier said, as small as your plots are, deer can see all four sides. It is obviously some kind of enclosure. They’re smart enough to know that once they get inside, they may not be able to get out. Yes, deer may stand frozen in your headlights or leap out in front of your pickup, but they are anything but dumb, especially the bucks.

That’s why many people routinely bait electric fencing with dabs of peanut butter on strips of tinfoil. Deer investigate with their noses. The smell draws them right up to the fence, almost guaranteeing that deer get the shock of their life.

A less messy option is cotton balls in metal caps with twist ties to hold them to the tape. A few drops of apple juice concentrate on the cotton grabs deer by the nose and reels them in like fish on a line. The electric shock doesn’t harm deer. It just startles and scares them with a quick ZAP!

OK, OK, you say, but how do you get half an acre fenced in less than an hour? It’s easy, and not just because we already have all the necessary supplies on hand. A couple of weeks earlier I had taken down the temporary fence around the vegetables and flowers in the east field. I loaded all the supplies into my pickup and drove up to the berries.

At the four corners of the area I wanted to fence, I drove a 6-foot metal T-post about a foot into the ground with a hand-held post pounder. To each post, I attached two slotted plastic insulators with plastic zip ties. Then, every seven paces between the corner posts, I used a rubber mallet to sink a 5-foot fiberglass rod about one foot into the ground.

It was time to string the hot tape. We store our tape on extra large EzeReels -- a hand-cranked plastic spool on a metal frame with neck strap -- that hold more than 1,000 feet of tape each. After securing one end of the tape to an insulator on a corner post, I released the spring-loaded latch on the reel and began walking backwards, unspooling the tape and slipping it into snap-on plastic Polyclips that were already on the fiberglass rods at the right height. Turning the clips about 90 degrees helps take the slack out of the tape.

After walking twice around the patch, I was done stringing tape. Then I secured the trailing end of the tape to an insulator on the corner post where I started. A PowerLink -- a shrouded stainless steel alligator clip at each end of a 3-foot insulated, flexible high-voltage cable -- connected the tape to the lead wire. I walked back to our seed-starting greenhouse, plugged in the HotShot 600 fence charger mounted on the wall and walked back out to the field with a digital voltmeter. Then I walked around the patch again, frequently testing both strands of hot tape to make sure there were no dead spots. The result was the same wherever I checked the fence -- 9,000 volts, peak. (Premier says an absolute minimum of 1,000 volts is needed for a fence to be effective.)

I must admit I was cheating a little bit, because this charger runs directly off of 110V household current. Years ago, we buried about 150 feet of insulated leadout wire in plastic conduit so that we would have a reliable power source for the nearby vegetable patch. At more remote locations around the farm I use a battery/solar-powered IntelliShock 20B fence charger. It works just as well, providing season-long protection on one 9-volt dry battery.

To complete the fence installation, I added a BrightLite night light. The neon light, visible for up to 1,000 feet, flashes every time the fence charger pulses. It lets me look out the bedroom window at night and know that the fence is working.

Despite that, whenever I check the greenhouses at night I can’t keep from shining my flashlight out through the blueberry patch. Three or four pairs of eerie, green eyeballs still stare back at me, but I don’t whistle, yell or even clap because they are safely on the outside of the fence. I figure there is no need to get excited. After all, deer season opens next month.