BACON HILL, N.Y. — For the “Big Apple,” people go to New York City.
For the biggest and best blueberries, they head upstate to Saratoga County, where Winney Farm’s 19 different varieties on 40 acres make it the largest such operation in eastern New York.
Owner Byron Winney’s ancestors began farming in the Hudson Valley in 1652, but it wasn’t until 1973 when his father, Arba, planted the first blueberry bushes.
“It’s been a very good year,” said Winney, surveying his picturesque setting on a sunny mid-July afternoon. “All the rain hasn’t hurt us at all. The heat kept some people away last weekend.”
However, temperatures cooled down considerably to the upper 70s and low 80s during this past week, making his farm an irresistible attraction for berry pickers for more than 100 miles around, including some customers from Vermont.
Typically, the season lasts from early July to mid-August. The first varieties to ripen include Sierra, Blue Jay, Duke and Hannah, followed by Blue Crop, Blue Ray and Collins.
By planting later varieties, Winney eventually hopes to extend the season into early September. These types of berries include Blue Gold, Liberty, Aurora and Legacy.
It takes a pretty sophisticated patron to tell the difference in taste from one variety to another. Most people are glad to get whatever kind they can.
“We picked 14 pints in 1 1/2 hours,” said George Hodgson, a local neighbor. “This is prime time. We always keep an eye out so we know when they’re ready.”
In addition to eating fresh berries by the handful, Hodgson said he likes his wife Becky’s cherry and blueberry cobbler.
“We had blueberry pancakes this past Sunday morning,” he said. “Plus, we always freeze some, unwashed, in bags.”
Stacey Morris, a longtime customer, writes a food blog (StaceyMorris.com) and drove 40 miles from Loudonville, N.Y., to pick berries.
“That’s how I discovered this place, by doing a food article,” she said. “I’ve been coming here for the past decade. These are the best blueberries in the area. I like fresh eating. I also use them to make smoothies, gluten-free muffins and put them on hot cereal.”
Aside from the pleasure they give people’s palates, blueberries have a significant health benefit. Containing antioxidants, they help fight against infection and disease.
Many farmers these days have diversified to give themselves multiple revenue streams in case one crop or product has a bad year. Winney, however, grows nothing but blueberries.
“The secret is that every bush I plant is paid for in advance,” he said. “I didn’t borrow money for anything.”
In addition, blueberries are somewhat hearty compared with other fruits such as raspberries and strawberries.
“A ripe blueberry will stay on the bush for about two weeks before it drops,” he said.
About 95 percent of his business is pick-your-own, with the rest sold at a small roadside stand at the farm’s Route 32 location, only a mile or so from the Hudson River. The town of Northumberland is a rich agricultural district in eastern Saratoga County. Winney Farm’s sandy and somewhat acidic soil is just right for blueberries.
Despite their relatively short season, blueberry bushes require year-round attention with constant pruning and mowing between long rows.
It takes new plants six to 10 years to develop before they’re ready for prime picking. With each young plant, flowers are picked off by hand, so that energy goes into producing a stronger stem instead of yielding fruit right away.
In the long run, this results in a healthier, more productive bush.
“You’ve got to do every bush,” Winney said.
He runs the farm by himself, with help from a cousin, John Keeley.
Winney’s earliest known ancestor, Peter Winney, left Belgium to work for the Dutch West India Company, a trading company founded in 1621, before settling in Bethlehem, N.Y., just south of Albany. In 1772, the Winneys partnered with another family, the Vandenberghs, in buying a huge 2,500-acre tract farther north at their current location. At the time, land cost $1.30 per acre.
Obviously, there’s quite a bit of family history. Another relative, DeWitt Winney, who is buried in a nearby rural cemetery, was among the 263 soldiers that died during the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana. His gravestone says, “DeWitt Winney. Died June 25, 1876. Company K, U.S. Cavalry. Killed while fighting the Indians at the massacre of General Custer at Little Bighorn.”
Somewhat eerily, Byron Winney and his twin brother, Bernard, were born on March 19, 1949 — 85 years to the day after DeWitt Winney joined the cavalry.
Through the years, the farm has grown smaller to its current size, about 85 acres. However, only half of that is under production, meaning Byron Winney has plenty of room to keep planting new types of berries for as long as he wants.
The farm’s latest addition is a bright, shiny copper weathervane shaped like an owl on the barn roof.
“To the Romans, the owl was the symbol of good luck,” he said smiling. “It can’t hurt.”