Our Blueberry Story
In 1977 we started an apple farm. Our dream was started with an order of 50 three year old trees. Our plan was to expand each year until we had planted most of the 6.6 acres of our farm land . In the fall of our first year we decided to graft our own trees since buying that many trees would take its toll on our family’s finances. At the time our young family included our 9 year old son, Rob, and our 6 yr old daughter, Cindy.
Our next move was to try our hand at grafting. We bought 700 dwarfing rootstock and some buds to graft. That winter we did the grafting and planted the following spring.
By this time we were expecting another child. That September Brian was born. We now had 3 children to feed and clothe.
During that year a vast majority of our grafts survived and in the winter of ’78-’79 we checked on the crop about every 2 weeks. On the 1st weekend in March 1979 they looked good, but 2 weeks later was far different story. We discovered that rabbits had chewed the bark off the trunks of all 750 trees.
In the spring of ’79 we tried doing bridge grafts, a method where a piece of viable stem is grafted from below the damaged section to above it. That year we lost about half of the 750 trees. In the fall and winter of ‘79- ‘80 Dave started hunting the rabbits. Each day after work, he went down and walked one edge of the field where a large number of sumac trees grew (a favorite rabbit food). In the beginning he was getting 2-3 most days, by the end of the season it was down to 0-1. His brother was out of work so much of the rabbits went to his brother to feed his family.
Back to the apples, by the 3rd year we were down to just 3 trees. Dave got so frustrated with that, that he brush hogged the last 3 down.
Our next move was to call in a fruit expert from Cornell Co-operative Extension. He walked our fields, did PH tests and then made his recommendation. He said we did not have apple ground, we had blueberry ground, with a little attention. Blueberries need a PH of 4.2-5.2 to do well, and our natural PH ranged between 5.5-5.8 in various sections of the field.
During this time frame we had added more acreage and we now had a little over 12 acres. Our first step was to till the field to be planted. It was rather low land and had wet spots so Dave decided to hill the field every 10’, where the bushes would be planted. After hilling by using a 6’ rear blade mounted on the tractor, we added the suggested amount of powdered sulfur in 2’ bands centered on the top of each ridge. We ordered 2000 Jersey blueberries as rooted cuttings. These were the only way we thought it possible to afford to plant. In the spring of 1981 we planted the cuttings at the rate of 950/acre, all planted by hand. We were now a blueberry farm (someday).
The bushes needed water every 2-3 days that summer and I set up a trailer to haul a water tank. We filled the tank at Dave’s parent’s place where a small creek ran beside the property. Their place was only about 800’ down the road. That year almost all of the cuttings grew and we were pleased.
In the summer of 1982 we were kept busy trying to keep the weeds out of the planting. Dave became very familiar with an old high wheeled shuffle hoe. Dave’s dad also did plenty to keep it weeded. He was amazing, he would hoe by hand for 4-5 hrs, go eat lunch and then do it again. Without his help we never would have made it.
In the spring of 1984 we planted 1900 more rooted cuttings, 1000 Blue Crop and 900 Blue Ray (it was the grower’s last of that variety for that season).The Blue Rays were planted on land behind the Jerseys and the Blue Crops were planted at the back field adjacent to the Blue Ray (where the apples had been planted a few years earlier) That same year our last child, Stacey, was born in June, our workforce was then complete.
Then in the spring of 1987 we planted our last planting, another ½ acre of Blue Crop. We then had a grand total of 4 ½ acres of blueberries.
It became difficult with Dave’s full time job to keep up with maintaining the 4.5 acres and soon brush started growing in the rows. Dave kept the aisles mowed but soon trees grew rapidly among the blueberry bushes (because of all the fertilizer used). Very quickly blueberry fields started to look like a wood lot from the road. Dave would cut the trees off and even treat the stumps with Roundup, but far too many grew back. At that point Dave announced he was going to sell the blueberry farm.
WOW, at that, Dave’s then 7 year old grandson, Adam (son of Cindy), who often worked with Dave in the blueberries said “Aw, Grandpa, that is the funnest part”. With that grandpa had to do something to make it possible to catch up and then maintain the fields properly. Enter a piece of equipment called a Weed Badger. It connects to a tractor and has an arm that extends up beside the tractor on the right side and is powered by the tractor’s PTO (power take off) turning a hydraulic pump. On this arm is a cultivating head that spins hydraulically on a vertical axis. That head has 6 tuff steel tines that tear up everything they encounter, and the end of the arm can pivot in and out about 12” to go in between the bushes, controlled by a joystick. Dave explained his situation to the factory salesman and it would work well. Without ever seeing one in person or talking with an owner Dave bought this, our biggest investment at the time. He cut the trees off at ground level and then ran the weed badger about 3x a year to cultivate the bushes. When the weed badger hits a stump it jumps up and over the stump but in the process it kills the stump. Then in 2-3 years the stumps actually gets yanked out and laid in the center of the aisle, with little or no dirt on it. Very big stumps seemed to take a couple of years longer but in time they also were laid in the aisle. Although of our customers like picking in the trees because of the shade on hot days, those same trees limit the yield and must go.
Eleven years later we now have a total of 54 rows of bushes and to date we have removed all the trees from 44 rows and have removed the largest trees from the last 10 rows. One hope for 2013 is to finish those last 10 rows. Dave’s grandson is now almost 19, still works with his grandpa (and likes it!) and just finished his first year of college.
Next phase of u-pick. In the fall of 2011 I tilled up about ¼ acre adjacent to the blueberries for a red raspberry planting. This was planted in the spring of 2012. Then the summer of 2012 proved to be a drought worse than any we had experienced since we first started the farm back in ‘77. Our blueberries looked good as the early season started but then the moisture was sucked out of the berries as the bushes tried to get more moisture. We decided we had to add drip irrigation. We ordered enough drip to irrigate the blueberries, raspberries and another garden of a little over ¼ acre we had for all sorts of fruits and vegetables in front of the sugarhouse at another location. The irrigation was installed in early July with the help of our grandson who regularly works with Dave in addition to his younger sister and another grandson, (son of Rob, also in college, who lives about 20 miles away). We were able to save the second half of the season and more importantly save the bushes. Many would not have survived the drought without the irrigation.