August 2015
Farm & Field

Blueberry Bounty

 
This child shows delight over the gallon of berries she and her dad picked.    

Growers across the country report record crops this year.

Blueberry farmers across the country are reporting a bumper crop this summer.

In this state, "the growing conditions were excellent except for the cool nights in the spring," said South Alabama farmer Tom McMillan. He and other farmers in the Escambia County Blueberry Growers Association, formed to help pack and ship blueberries across the country, sell the berries each June at the Brewton area Blueberry Festival.

Judy Crane, executive director of the Brewton Chamber of Commerce, said crowds of up to 8,000 come to the festival each summer. Arts and crafts vendors display their work, and visitors can listen to live entertainment as they check out antique cars and eat homemade blueberry ice cream. A new event this year – The Marketplace – was set up to acquaint festival-goers with local shops they might pass while in the area.

Around Alabama, there are plenty of farms where you can pick the berries yourself, including Pendley Farms in Lacey’s Spring. Lori Pendley encourages the public to sign up on a mailing list so they can have the latest information on picking dates and times. She and her husband Earl, who is retired from NASA in Huntsville as a contract manager, own the blueberry farm. They also have a booth each week at the Bailey Cove Farmers Market in Huntsville where they sell their produce.

 
  Blueberry bushes at Pendley Farms in Lacey’s Spring are ready for picking by families. Farmers in the United States lead the world in the production of blueberries. In 2012 alone, 564.4 million pounds of cultivated and wild blueberries were harvested. Around Alabama, there are plenty of farms where you can pick the ripe berries yourself.

The evening of June 25, 26 different family groups visited the farm, Earl said. He and his wife bought plenty of water and popsicles to keep the guests cool as they picked berries until dark – about 250-pounds worth.

"We’re still waiting on some berries (to turn). The rain in April made them come in late this year."

Picking should continue through the middle of July, he said.

Pendley values blueberry farming as a means of being "a good steward of the land." As he grew up in north Georgia, he worked in "huge gardens" planted and tended by his parents who had lived through the harsh Depression years.

Blueberries can be consumed in so many ways – atop pancakes and waffles with whipped cream, on cereal, cooked and put up as jam for now and in the winter when fresh berries can’t be found, and, of course, just by themselves as a snack.

The health benefits are almost too many to name. In April, The Wall Street Journal published a story on recent research showing regular consumption of berries (two or more servings per week), leafy greens and fish may cut the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. This way of eating has been named the MIND Diet and is similar to the highly regarded Mediterranean Diet.

According to a Florida State University study, one cup of blueberries a day may help curb high blood pressure and stiffening of the arteries, both of which are linked to heart disease. Other research indicates that berries in the diet may lower the chances of developing certain cancers, increase bone mass and improve the functioning of the immune system.

 
Buckets in hand, a father and his two youngsters are ready for their blueberry-picking adventure.  

Farmers in the United States lead the world in the production of blueberries. In 2012 alone, 564.4 million pounds of cultivated and wild blueberries were harvested. Michigan led the way among the 50 states with 87 million pounds of cultivated berries that same year. Maine was the top producer of "wild" berries with 91.1 million pounds.

A major problem in recent years for farmers is a flying pest that attacks berries, grapes, tree fruit and some vegetables, according to Auburn University researchers writing in July 2011. Called the spotted wing drosophila, it was first seen on crops in central California in 2008. Farmers found the insect here in Coosa County in June 2011.

Lori hasn’t seen the pest this year but agrees it’s devastating. It doesn’t appear until the fruit is fully formed, she said.

McMillan also hasn’t seen the drosophila this year, but his crop has suffered a bit from exo basidium, a disease appearing on fruit and oak tree leaves as white spots. He will use fly traps and sprays if he spots the flying pest.

For more details on the spotted wing drosophila, go to:https://sites.aces.edu/group/timelyinfo/Documents/july2011.pdf.

McMillan planted 20 acres in rabbiteye blueberries this year, with all harvesting done by hand usually from 7-10 a.m.

Maureen Drost is a freelance writer who lives in Huntsville. She was a career journalist for The Decatur Daily and The Huntsville Times.