Blueberries See Bumper Crop
Adi Merchand ,6, of Bradford, Vt., picks blueberries at Wild Hill Organics in West Fairlee, Vt., on August 7, 2013. Merchand was picking with her mother and friends at the pick-your-own orchard. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Large ripe bluberries warm in the sun at Wild Hill Organics in West Fairlee, Vt., on August 7, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Kelly Doyle of Chelsea ,Vt., pours her blueberries into a box at Wild Hill Organics in West Fairlee, Vt., on August 7, 2013. Doyle picked ten quarts with her two sons in less than an hour. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
West Fairlee — Megan Dubuque moved through the rows of bushes at Wild Hill Organics Wednesday morning, collecting handfuls of blueberries with her 14-month-old son, Jacob, strapped to her back.
With a floppy blue hat shielding his face from the sun, Jacob cooed and bounced along, the remnants of a plump berry smushed below his lip.
“Do you have blueberries on your chin?” a fellow picker teased in a sing-song voice.
He paused, thought a moment, and responded, smiling: “Yeah!”
Dubuque, a teacher at Bradford Elementary School, was there with other members of the school community — adults and children alike — picking blueberries to incorporate into school lunches.
It was an idyllic scene in the hills of West Fairlee, where farm owner Peggy Willey maintains nearly 3,000 blueberry bushes and pickers travel from across the Twin States to get their taste of the blues.
And it’s been a ideal season for many — although not all — of the region’s blueberry growers, according to berry enthusiasts ranging from pickers to growers to other experts.
With a few exceptions, they said the short-lived crop has enjoyed well-timed bursts of rain and sunshine in recent months.
“It’s been an excellent blueberry year,” said Vern Grubinger, berry and vegetable specialist with the UVM Extension. “The early rain didn’t hurt the crop; in fact helped it. It looks like a banner year.”
Lea Ann Cole, an East Topsham resident at Wild Hill yesterday, could see it with her own eyes.
She was there with West Topsham’s Carol Jenisch, picking their berries for use in future meals — blueberry pancakes, blueberry jams, or just to “put ‘em on the kitchen table and eat ‘em,” Cole said.
“These are some of the biggest blueberries I’ve ever seen,” Cole said, sitting under a tent with Jenisch, admiring their collections, “and the fact that they’re organic just makes them that much better.”
Blueberries’ good fortune this season can be traced back to the winter, Grubinger said, when mild weather meant there was limited “winter injury.” When the flowers opened, he said, there were “plenty of pollinators out and about” to help the fruit along.
In Thetford, Cedar Circle Farm Production Manager Megan Baxter said blueberries have been “both very plentiful and large.”
“Our guess is that this will be our best blueberry year ... in the 10 years that I’ve been here,” she said.
A soggy June hurt the farm’s strawberry yield, she said, but gave blueberries a welcome burst of hydration right as they were ripening.
“Our sort of takeaway lesson as a farm is that this sort of weather teaches us the benefit of being diversified,” she said, referring to the difficult year for strawberries that was recouped by an abundance of blues.
Grubinger noted that not every farm is experiencing the same level of success. “There are always exceptions, even within a planting. ... If the soil conditions are off, or if they had some kind of weather event that was localized,” the berry yields vary, he said.
Indeed, Edgewater Farm owner Ann Sprague said the farm did not have a particularly strong blueberry year.
The Plainfield farm does not offer pick-your-own blueberries, but recently wrapped up its blueberry wholesale season and will continue to sell the fruit at its farm stand.
And in Strafford, Karen Ward said her Ward’s Berry Farm is experiencing the “worst blueberry year we have ever had,” with the bushes getting a rough early-season start from frost and a series of hail storms.
Although her pick-your-own raspberries have been “phenomenal,” the blueberries just never rebounded, she said. “Last year, you could fill a bucket just turning around in a circle, and it’s not that (this year),” she said.
Nevertheless, Grubinger said, “in general what I’m hearing from people is there’s a lot of fruit out there and it’s high quality, and the pickers are active.”
He said the spotted wing drosophila, an invasive pest which increased in prevalence in the Upper Valley last year, has not been a problem for farmers yet this summer, but that growers will be keeping an eye out for it later in the season, when populations may increase again.
Even if the pests do return, Grubinger said, the problems of decay are easily avoided by picking fruit promptly and refrigerating it.
That’s important for pickers to know, Grubinger said, as “blueberries are more popular than ever.”
“I get a lot of calls of people planting additional blueberries, starting blueberry farms, and I think one of the reasons is they are an exceptionally healthy fruit to eat,” he said.
Even though there’s been a large number of pick-your-own customers this year, the huge fruit yields have allowed berries to stay on their bushes longer, said Cedar Circle’s Baxter.
Older berries are sweeter berries, she said. And back in West Fairlee, that was good news for pick-your-own Wild Hill customers like 9-year-old Quinncy Beaudin, who summarized the science nicely.
“They taste good,” he said, “because normally when I taste blueberries, they’re sour.”