Our first blueberry plants were planted in 1983, and we've been planting ever since. Sometimes replacing sick plants with healthy plants. Sometimes adding new acreage. Sometimes replacing varieties that didn't do well with those that we thought would. And, sometimes not sure what we'll replant with.
We've changed our growing styles as we've learned new things. Sometimes we've made mistakes but we've tried to learn from them. What works one year doesn't always work the next, but we keep moving forward. We've found that certain ways of pruning can change not only the amount or size of berries on that plant, but also how well it will produce in the years to come.
We've found that some varieties are better for different pack styles; fresh or frozen. We've found that watering at different times at different amounts can change your harvest. And we've found that everything we know doesn't cover the amount of everything we could know.
We're always working towards more Sustainable Agricultural practices on our farm. What started out as tests for our then future organic blueberry fields, turned into eco-friendly practices in our conventional fields.
We planted our first organic blueberry field in the fall of 2006 and another in the fall of 2007. We still have a long ways to go in our knowledge of organics, but we've so far found it to be a viable farming option. We keep using what we learn from our organic certified fields in our other fields; working to decrease our reliance on industrial chemicals and increase our use of more natural products.
Each time we try a new thing, we learn something. Sometimes we learn that the new something doesn't work for us. Sometimes we learn that it will. And sometimes, we learn something that we didn't even know we were looking for.
A Year In The Life
Blueberry farming is a year round job; prunning, fertilizing, pest control, harvest and irrigation all need to be done. Not all are done at the same time; prunning is a winter job and of course harvest is a summer job, but they do keep one busy.
Cultivated blueberry plants are perennial plants of a bushy nature. At our farm, we grow varieties from the "highbush" family of blueberries. Our blueberry plants average from 3 to 6 feet tall; depending on their age, variety and how we prune them. Some varieties grow slower than others or simply do not put on a lot of growth, so stay a shorter bush. Other varieties grow faster or more vigorously and can maintain taller structure.
Just as the new year begins, we start pruning our blueberry fields. Prunning is done for various reasons; to affect the size or amount of berries, to change the shape or size of the plant or simply to remove dead or diseased parts. Prunning our blueberry fields usually takes roughly 2 months, up to the time that the plants start to showing some green.
After that, it's general maintenance for a little while. During the year we take soil and plant samples and working with consultants, we decide what we need to do to keep our blueberry plants healthy. From these samples a plan is made that determines what issues we might need to address and how best to accomplish that. Usually during this time right after prunning, the first steps are made in this area. Fertilizers and pest control products are applied, aimed at the issues our tests have identified as our current problem areas.
Many issues are those that we face most years. Some issues are a confined or limited problem that we only face once-in-awhile. Blueberries in general have several common pests, diseases and mineral needs that most growers face and can be on-going areas of concern and require regular observation and attention. We also start working on controlling the ground cover in the fields, or, mowing the grass in the rows. We keep grass growing between the rows to help in controlling issues of erosion and to promot a healthy envioroment in our fields.
Before we know it, the plants are blooming and it's time to bring in the bees to pollinate our blueberry fields. We work to promote our local wild bee population, but there are never enough to do the job. We work with professional bee keepers who bring in a specific amount of bee boxes to work our fields.
During this time we basically stop our applications of pest control products, only doing some limited weed control using products that are non-harmful to bees and keeping these usages from contacting the bees or their hives.
Having different varieties of blueberries can mean slightly staggered blooming in our fields. Some varieties not only ripen earlier or later than others, but they can also start blooming slightly earlier or later. Generally we have a month to a month and a half of blooming fields.
After the blooms drop, you can start seeing the beginning of the individual blueberries. At first they're just a little odd shaped green end-cap, but before you know it they start to grow in size and turn into the round blueberry shape. From bloom drop to beginning of harvest is roughly 2 months. During those 2 months we're back to taking care of any issues that we need to address; any pest needing control, any plant needs and taking care of weeds. And Mowing!
All the additives that we apply to keep our blueberry plants healthy also keeps our weeds and cover grasses healthy. During the spring we spend a lot of time controlling those weeds and grasses. Mowing the grass in the blueberry fields can usually be a full-time job for someone. They will start at the beginning of one field and mow their way through all the fields. Between loosing a few days to weather and just the amount of area being mowed, usually means that once they finish everything, the grass they mowed at the beginning is ready to be mowed again.
We start irrigating our blueberry fields during this time. How much we have to irrigate depends on how much rain we get. Blueberries are very high in moisture content, in the 80% range, and the plants require water to create them. If you do not supply enough water, the plants will not be able to form the berries properly and you won't have much of a harvest.
Between the middle of June and the first of July, our first blueberries will ripen enough to start picking. One day you will be looking at the fields and there will be only a few berries with some blue and the next day you realize that you need to get on the ball because your in harvest.
For the next couple of months almost all we think about is picking, packing and shipping blueberries. It becomes an all-consuming process around our farm. Of course there's some other things going on; we still have grass-seed fields and hazelnut orchards to take care of, but the main focus is on the blueberries.
We go from a farm with 20-25 employees to a farm with 150 or more employees over the span of a few of days. The beginning of our season is aimed at Fresh market packing which means hand-picked blueberries. That usually means 50-150 people in our fields picking those blueberries ready to be picked. At the same time we are running our packing facility which adds another 30-40 people per packing shift. We usually run two packing shifts for most of the blueberry season, with another smaller cleaning crew that works overnight.
As the blueberry season moves along, we will move from picking for fresh market and more for the process or frozen market, picking more fruit with machines and less by hand. In the last few seasons, labor has become more and more of an issue. It has been getting harder to fill our hand-pick and packing crews. At times we have to worked with Labor Contractors or just pick more fruit by machine. Our blueberry harvest will usually span over a couple of months, ending with our last pickings in late August or early September.
After the blueberry harvest is all over, there is still some mowing, weeding and other items to address, but we are moving into the slower part of the blueberry year.
There are usually some applications of fertilizers, pest control chemicals or additives that address plant needs that we will need to apply before winter hits, again, following the plan created almost a year ago now, but for the most part we've come to the end of the blueberry year.
A month or two from now, it will all start over again. Each year brings up's and down's; some new issue to overcome or some happening to enjoy. That's all a part of farming. Its also all a part of life. Our growing blueberries in the end is not just about farming but also about life. Our lives.
As each year goes by everyone works at whatever they do and whatever they do becomes part of their lives. Ours just happens to include blueberries.