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Blueberries are ready for picking

YATES COUNTY—There is absolutely nothing to compare with fresh fruit, especially if you picked it yourself at one of many farms that offer to let you pick your own.  A little time and work can produce enough for eating out of hand, making desserts and freezing to enjoy during the cold weather months. There are a number of farms here that offer the opportunity to pick your own fruit while others have roadside stands where the fruit has been picked hours before it is purchased.
Right now blueberries are at the top of the ripeness list. Some farm owners talked about raising this unique fruit. Sugar Shack in Yates County is in its 34th year. The farm in western Yates County is home to 17,000 blueberry bushes as well as red and black raspberries. Mary Pat Pennell is one of the trio of owners and she spoke about the benefits of growing blueberries.
One she mentioned was the fact that the shrubs don’t have to be replanted, unlike raspberries, for example.  They also live for a long time. She said there are some plants at Rutgers University that are over 100 years old. Value added products are also important to the operation. Blueberry syrup, a beverage called Quenca, eight kinds of jam, maple syrup and Blueberry Blossom honey are also produced at the farm on East Swamp Road in Penn Yan. Pennell said the best thing about blueberries is that they are a seasonal product.
Blueberries are not difficult to pick. It’s fairly easy to determine which berries are ripe and the shrubs have no thorns and are medium height, which makes picking much easier. Sugar Shack offers sit and pick buckets: large pails with lids containing cutouts for popping berries into the bucket while seated.
John Tamburello of Glenhaven Farms has been growing blueberries since 1979 when the first acre of berries was planted on the family’s 50 acre farm in Hector. Blueberries were selected as a crop because there weren’t many people growing them at the time. Tamburello said there are two things critical for success in growing blueberries: the right ph and an irrigation system that will provide five gallons of water per plant each week. Asked what is the biggest challenge to growing blueberries, Tamburello instantly said, “Birds.” He uses  a variety of recorded bird distress calls to discourage the intruders. A net is used in some blueberry farms, but he said the cost of the material is prohibitive.
The idea of growing blueberries has gone international. John’s son Joseph joined the Peace Corps after graduating from college. He served in Moldova in Eastern Europe and introduced growing blueberries there. He has since returned to the family business.
Raspberries and black currants are also grown at the farm. They are not available for you-pick; in fact, they have another destination altogether—in wine bottles. The use of the fruit in this manner is creating value added products, giving Glenhaven Farm something else to sell. Tamburello said the fruits are frozen and when the amount needed is produced, the juice is pressed out and the winemaking begins. The wine, including blueberry wine, is sold at the farm on Sirrine Road in Trumansburg and at the Ithaca Farmers Market on Saturdays.
Tamburello said growing the fruit is, “Like taking care of a big garden.”
Blueberries have a nice long season. This year picking began in June and in many years picking will continue until August or mid-September. Planting a selection of varieties allows the extended picking time.
Blueberries require care and more than a bit of luck with weather for success. Blueberries are expensive to establish and require lots of work to keep  going. They need low soil ph and well drained acid, sandy loam. Pruning stimulates growth. The length of time and care required to raise them to market condition illustrates why they are often considered an expensive fruit. In addition to being at the mercy of birds and the weather, owners of blueberry farms are kept busy from March until November maintaining the plantings.
There are other you-pick operations in the area. Some small ones depend on word of mouth and a small roadside sign to alert people to the possibility of picking their own fruit. A visit to one such farm resulted in a new venture for an area couple. John and Stacey McGregor have been associated with McGregor Winery for a very long time, often working every day. Last fall they passed a sign for you-pick blueberries. He said they went in and picked berries and were completely taken by the setting. Although McGregor grew up tending grapes, he didn’t know much about blueberries. Despite this, the couple asked about the for sale sign on the property and two days later signed a purchase offer for the farm. He said, “We thought we could dig our roots in it.” McGregor was surprised how early the berries ripened this year and although the crop is heavy this year, it’s not quite as heavy as last year.
McGregor said it’s taxing to have two businesses, but things are going well. Referring to the new four acre blueberry farm that contains blueberry bushes that are more than 30 years old, McGregor said, “We’re not owners, we’re stewards and tenders.”
Small you-pick blueberry operations with modest roadside signs are dotted throughout Schuyler and Yates Counties. The season generally lasts until mid-September, but may end slightly sooner this year due to the unusual weather we are experiencing in 2010.


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