Ripe for the picking

Summertime blues (and reds and purples)

Showing off the day’s harvest from Blahut Farms.

Amongst my dad’s favorite country adages is this gem: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.”
For this reason, “you pick” remained a foreign concept to me for years – until my uncle Charlie (on the other side of the family) moved to the top of Red Rock Mountain and opened his blueberry farm. “You pick” now means so much more.

The “you pick” concept is straightforward – visit a farm, pick fruit, pay. It’s simple and cheap; in fact, the whole day trip shouldn’t cost much more than the price of gas and the fruit you pick.

Sadly, strawberry season is drawing to a close, but the season for blackberries and blueberries is just beginning. LSU AgCenter professor Charles Johnson of the School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences offers the following guidelines for when various berries are in season: strawberries, mid-February through early May; blackberries, early May through June; and blueberries, late May through mid-July.

There is a great deal more to say about berry-growing – state and federal regulation, plant physiology, soil pH, meteorology – but for now, let’s leave those details to the experts. Appreciate the hard work of all the scientists and farmers, and take time to enjoy the fruits of their, and your, labor. Happy picking!

Berry Sweet Orchards
Location: 5110 Brown Road, Ethel, LA 70730; East Feliciana Parish Contact: (225) 683-8584; www.berrysweetorchards.com; mail@berrysweetorchards.com
Proprietors: Cliff and Susan Muller Acres: 2.25 blueberry acres, approximately 1,300-1,400 plants Primary crops: Blueberries, thornless blackberries, tomatoes Open: You-pick, first weekend in June to second week of July, Thursday-Saturday

Cliff and Susan Muller’s farm started as a way to pursue interests far-removed from Cliff’s day-to-day job running Jefferson Battery Co. Inc. with his brothers Jerry and Doug.

“When people come to the battery business, it’s because they have a problem; [on the farm], they come to have fun,” he says. He adds with a laugh, “Everyone comes out with a smile on their face, and they all leave with blue tongues.”

Having spent five years studying with the Blueberry Growers Association before purchasing the farm in 1990, Cliff was ready to burst into the berry business right away.

When the Mullers purchased the farm, blueberries and peach trees covered the turf. Because peach trees only have a 10-year lifespan (and with disease and insects, “you’re lucky if you get five crops,” Cliff says), the trees were deemed too high-maintenance, and blueberries took their place as star crop.

The blueberries currently carpeting the landscape are a relatively new crop in that the berry, Rabbiteye, a Highbush blueberry-huckleberry hybrid producing a marble-sized berry, was only just developed for the southern U.S. in the 1970s. In total, the Mullers grow about 10 different varieties of blueberry.

A point of pride for the Mullers is their certification from the National Organics Program, a national regulatory organization monitoring standards and practices of organic farmers. (Cliff credits his wife for pursuing NOP certification.)

NOP closely monitors farms, visiting at intervals to take soil samples; there is also an extensive list of rules farmers must follow regarding such things as fertilizers and pesticides in order to keep NOP standing. Of learning all the stringent regulations of NOP farming, Cliff says, “It’s not so much studying it; you gotta live it!”

Thankfully, picking the berries is much less complicated. At Berry Sweet Orchards, the customer gets a bucket or bag, heads for the field and comes back to check out with their mini-harvest. There is plenty of shady space to keep berries until pickers are out of the field, and there are also indoor restroom facilities.

Cliff says that on a Saturday, he and Susan only have time to hand out buckets and park vehicles for about two-and-a-half hours and then just have time to rush over as visitors pour into the checkout line.

“It’s like Disney World here on a Saturday!” Cliff says. “[Berry-picking] is a recession-proof family outing.”

The farm opens for you-pickers the first weekend in June; the picking season goes through to the first or second weekend in July. During this time, visitors can also pick their own tomatoes and fresh flowers. Visitor hours are Thursday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. (The long, midday break is to keep visitors out of the sun during the hottest hours, and the three-day-a-week picking window allows the plants to refresh their fruits in peace.)

The best part, Cliff says, is knowing people have a good time.

Even though Cliff keeps the fields “mowed like your backyard in Metairie,” he stresses the importance of wearing the right gear for a day in the field. Folks should arrive with a sun hat and ice water, to prevent overheating, and tennis shoes and socks, a more protective alternative to open-toed flip-flops (it is the outdoors, after all). The Mullers request “no pets, please,” and for the berries, they recommend bringing an ice chest to store them after they’re picked.

Blahut Strawberry Farm
Location: 24980 Fayard Road, Springfield, LA 70462; Livingston Parish
Phone: (225) 294-5073; www.blahutstrawberryfarm.com; blahutfarm@charter.net
Proprietor: J.C. Blahut Acres: About 7.5 Primary Crop: Strawberries Open: Through June

Blahut Strawberry Farm is mainly a destination for school field trips, with more than 2,000 kids booked for the season as of March 17. Cathy Blahut, the proprietor’s daughter, says her mother started bringing field trip groups to the farm 30 years ago; one former field-tripper, Cathy says, returns yearly with her kindergarten class, now as a teacher. The field trips have evolved, Cathy says; once, young people visited to pick berries for jellies and jams, but now students visit to learn about the agricultural process.

For non-students, the farm holds designated Family Days when anyone can come to pick. (Check the Web site for up-to-date info.) If you wish to make a day of your berry trip, stop off on your way home for a picnic at Tickfaw State Park, only a short drive from the farm.

J.C. Blahut, Cathy’s dad, owns the farm, which has been in operation for more than 100 years. One of the farm’s claims to fame is that it has been named Grand Champion of the Ponchatoula Strawberry festival “about 20 times,” Cathy says.

Blueberry Ridge Orchard
Location: 2199 Hollyridge Road, Jackson, LA 70748; East Feliciana Parish Contact: (225) 629-5311 Proprietor: Chris Jones Acres: About 10 Primary Crop: Blueberries Open: June and July, from sunrise to sunset

Proprietor Chris Jones has owned and operated Blueberry Ridge Orchard for about six years now but has been involved with the land for twice that long – he used to live just down the road. Jones established a relationship with the former owner and was happy to purchase the land when the old owner was ready to sell. (It didn’t hurt that he only had to move down the street.)

Jones says plants taken from cuttings, as most of his are, take about five years to become abundantly productive. He estimates the farmland is now home to seven or eight varieties of berry and will soon be home to more. Jones says he’s in the process of planting other types of vegetation but isn’t certain exactly which veggies and fruits just yet.

For the trip, Jones recommends visitors bring a belt – one that fits properly – and a few clean, empty 1-gallon plastic milk jugs. (Without giving away his secret rigging system, it can be said that Jones’ berry belts are pretty darn clever.)

After picking, berries are weighed out and sold by the pound. The bushes aren’t sprayed with pesticide, so “you can eat ‘em right off the bush,” Jones says. Families can pick berries for a solid six to seven weeks during the summer, from roughly June 1 through mid-July.

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