Observations regarding you-pick blueberries…

We just finished up with our 8th season of welcoming you-pickers to our back yard, which happens to include three acres of northern highbush blueberries. This has been an interesting venture – helps pay for our farm, obviously, but also presents an opportunity to connect with the “general public” outside of academia [that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise, considering we are both introverts]. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the folks that take the trouble to come to a you-pick are fabulous, functional human beings. We are very, very grateful for their patronage, especially since blueberries from Canada are on sale for $1.50/pint at the grocery store and take 5 seconds to plop in your cart.  We do, as you might expect, get some interesting questions and comments, and the “OMG! Nature!” thing has come up a few times.

bee berry farm

Here’s a selection of our [reasonably patient] responses to not-so-frequently-asked questions and comments that occur while handing out buckets and ringing up sales:

  • “No, we don’t have to plant them every year like potatoes. They are perennial shrubs.”
  • “The berries do indeed taste better if they are blue. Green and pink, not so much.”
  • “No, I cannot weigh you before and after picking to tell how many you’ve eaten in the field. Ha, ha, I’ve not heard that one before.”
  • “I’m sorry you saw a Japanese beetle.”
  • “Alas, we do not provide Wi-Fi out in the field.”
  • “I can’t go pick for you while you watch the sales stand. Sorry.”
  • “I know the picking season started one week earlier than last year, even though you were on vacation. It’s kind of a weather thing.”
  • “Nope, there will not be more berries ‘appearing’ later. This is sort of a one-shot deal, they flower in the spring, and that’s what you see here.”
  • “Yes, there may be some bees around. It’s a farm. We have bees. The name of our business is Bee Berry Farm.”
  • “No, we cannot put a net over three acres.” (People are very concerned as to how we are not overwhelmed with deer, birds, bears, etc.)
  • “I’m so sorry your child was stung while poking a stick in a yellow jacket’s nest.” (indeed very scary for all of us involved…especially the poor little guy with the stick.)
  • “We do not apply chemicals other than water and fertilizer. Pardon? Yes, water is a chemical.”
  • “Unfortunately, you cannot make your own bushes by planting these blueberries. And no, I’m not familiar with that website.”
  • “No ma’am, I do not know who placed excess zucchini in your unlocked car.”

Other observations made and behaviors noted:

  • Small children are usually not excited about roaming through a hot sunny field at 11:30 a.m. Though we salute the parents who think this might be a good experience for them.
  • Please do not send said hot and annoyed children to stand unattended under the sales tent, staring at the proprietor.
  • You would be amazed at how sound travels across a hillside; other pickers may or may not want to hear exactly what you think of your mother-in-law.
  • Please don’t park IN our perennial border.
  • It’s not fun to find a dirty diaper hiding in the bushes.

Consternation in the You-Pick Field

It’s high season at our blueberry farm.  Each morning, the yard fills with cars (at 7:00 a.m. – aargh) and eager blueberry pickers hit our four acres of Northern Highbush berries. No late freezes, lots of hard work by our honey bees, and good rainfall have added up to a blockbuster crop.  Certainly helps with the mortgage.

Running a you-pick ( U-Pick makes me itch) farm is an …interesting experience.  Upside – you do the picking, we weigh the buckets, we take the money – $2.40/lb + tax. Very reasonable for big, fat berries. Our average sale is right around 10 lbs.  I’d (theoretically) invite 90% of our customers to stick around for dinner – they’re that nice.  Downside, besides hot, grumpy children, bee stings, and porta-potties: some people literally eat their way across the field.  We absolutely expect pickers to taste a few as they go.  That’s part of the you-pick experience.  But I have witnessed some remarkable acts of blatant face-stuffing.  Kids, I can kind of understand, but adults? I mean, do you eat your way through the produce section of the grocery store? The truly noble customer recognizes this and offers an extra dollar or two (“Gosh, I may have eaten a lot”).  But the clueless #%$& who eats with both hands for an hour and then pays for a pound makes us a bit queasy. We get reports all the time from concerned customers i.e. “See that guy in the brown hat? He’s eating more than he’s picking.” One incident that comes to mind is a lady that completely denuded a 6′ plant; encouraging her daughter to eat the whole time, and then paid for less than a pound.

We try not to sweat it – maybe it’s a compliment as to how good our blueberries are – but it still puzzles me. What am I missing here? Why is this acceptable?  Taking a tip from another local farm, we put out a jar near the register last week.  They call it a “sin jar” but that’s a little too judgmental for us.  We call it “munch money” and note that the contents of the jar goes to our local woefully-underfunded animal rescue and shelter. We make a donation yearly anyway; now it’s more fun (and satisfying), served up as a gentle nudge  – we raised $120 for the shelter over the 4th of July weekend alone!


Duty Calls

As retirements have decimated our Horticulture Department’s faculty ranks, I find myself in the interesting position of teaching a course in small fruit production next fall semester. I’m working on the syllabus as was speak (hence this post).  If you’ve read my bio (“About Us”), you’ll see that this is not my bag.  But our students are clamoring for fruit and vegetable production courses, so someone’s got to do it. We are also  currently without on-campus vegetable faculty, if you can believe it. Though I know a few full professors that could pass as vegetables – HA!!!.

Anyhoo, I volunteered because I know just enough to be dangerous, and am willing to learn more.  I’ve been an avid home vegetable gardener
for years.
My partner has a Ph.D. in small fruit breeding and genetics, and I helped him with some experiments back in our grad school days (and his field sampling/taste trials made me doubt my specialization in ornamentals).  We now  have a you-pick blueberry farm where I’m learning the finer points of blueberry culture (the pH thing is a really huge deal).  All this vast experience obviously qualifies me to teach fruit production at the college level. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but many Horticulture departments are in the same boat, with early retirements used to meet budget shortfalls, compounded by hiring freezes (since 2007 here). Research staff, grad students, and hired instructors are picking up the teaching load and helping  the already-spread-too-thin teaching faculty.  I mentioned in a previous post about our brilliant state legislatures’ desire to eliminate urban Extension programs,  leaving only the agriculturally–related specialists and offices.

This is depressing on many fronts, but what bothers me most is that I feel we’re missing the boat – just when Horticulture is getting sexy again.  Think of how frequently this discipline is mentioned in the media, whether in the form of community gardens, safe food production, the popularity of native plants, sustainability, organics, etc….unfortunately, the writers/broadcasters rarely say the “Horticulture” word.  But horticulture is exactly what they’re talking about: small-scale gardening and the art and science thereof.  People want to do it, they’re thirsty for good information, and now, with the spotlight on us, we can’t meet their needs.

Nice tomato!

I can’t really think of an image appropriate to this rambling post, so will end this with a more cheerful photo of one of my tomatoes from last summer (variety is ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’).