From Florida Oranges to Va. Blueberries

7/26/2014 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

MATNEY FLATS, Va. — What started for Bill Blackwell as a getaway from his job as manager of an orange grove in Florida has grown into a rewarding business here in Wythe County, Va.

Sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of his home perched on the side of Henley Mountain, Bill Blackwell, 78, talked about his blueberry farm and why it is now for sale.

He said he and his wife, Marcia, bought the property off Matney Flats Road in 2005 as a getaway from his job in Florida. The house required a lot of work the first two years and they worked to fix it up, he said.

After the improvements were done and the couple began spending more time in Virginia, they found they were getting bored, he recalled.

They owned 64 acres of land and began looking for something they could grow to get the land in production and “hopefully make a dollar or two,” he said.

After he and Marcia did research, they settled on the idea of growing blueberries.

Bill Blackwell chuckled as he described his plan of planting a 17-acre plot of land that slopes down the mountainside to the road in blueberries.

“My back wouldn’t make it,” he said.

The blueberry patch at Henley Mountain Berry Farm is now a 1.25 acre plot with six varieties of blueberries. Bill Blackwell said he chose the berries according to the time of season they mature. By doing this, he said he has early summer berries, midsummer berries and late-summer berries.

Patriots and Drapers are his early berries, although he conceded that Drapers kind of lead into midsummer. The two varieties considered midsummer are the Reka and the Blue crop. The late summer varieties are Liberty and Aurora.

Happily for the Blackwells, the harvest season for the blueberries coincides with summer vacation time, where the youth are glad to help pick blueberries.

The Blackwells have three marketing methods. Bill Blackwell said about 25 percent are currently sold in the you-pick operation at the farm. Another 25 percent is sold to vendors and the remaining half is sold on Saturdays at farmers markets in two nearby towns, Wytheville and Marion. Marcia Blackwell takes the Wytheville Market, while Bill Blackwell takes the one in Marion.

He predicts that these percentages will change with more blueberries going to vendors as the bushes mature and produce more fruit.

The Blackwells planted their berries in March 2008 and began picking them four years ago. Blueberries are a crop that requires several years to become established.

Asked if the dry weather this year has made his berries sweeter, Bill Blackwell said they do seem to taste sweeter, but he attributed it to the fact that the plants are maturing, not necessarily the weather. He said more mature plants usually produce sweeter fruit, basing his observation on the oranges he grew for 10 years.

One of the advantages to being a blueberry grower, he said, is the short growing season. It lasts from March to September, when the leaves fall off and the plants go dormant for the winter.

Bill Blackwell said he has learned a lot about his product by reading and found that most blueberries are grown in Michigan, where soils are said to be sandy. Here in the clay soils of southwest Virginia, he finds it necessary to mulch heavily. He uses a combination of wood chips and horse or cow manure. This is applied after all of the fruit is harvested for the year. He said he would never put manure around the plants while they are bearing fruit.

The Blackwells use drip irrigation with their blueberries. They collect runoff water from the house, barn and other buildings on the property to supply the irrigation system.

The berry patch is surrounded by a high electric fence, a necessity to keep wildlife out of the berries, he said. While he talked, two deer were observed grazing in the grass farther down the mountain below the berry patch. Bill Blackwell said he has seen two female bears this summer; one had one cub and the other twins.

Bill Blackwell said he controls weeds with one application of Roundup and Simiezine, a pre-emergence herbicide, and does spot treatments as needed. He hasn’t seen any serious problems with weeds this season.

He said the fungus, phomopsis dieback, is present in his berries, but is not a real problem. The application of a fungicide once in the spring has proven to be an effective control method.

Of most concern, though, is the spotted wing drosophila, which has the nasty habit of boring into soft-skinned fruit and laying eggs that produce little white worms in the berries. Bill Blackwell said grapes are also a target for these flies. He said these insects are so small that he uses a handheld magnifying lens to spot them.

He makes traps by using quart size plastic containers with holes drilled in the top. These contain a mixture of red-wine vinegar and apple-cider vinegar. The flies go through the holes and fall into the mixture.

Japanese beetles have been pests in past years, but he hasn’t had a problem this year. He suspects the harsh winter is responsible for depleting the pest.

“It’s turned into more work than we want to do,” Bill Blackwell said of the farm. It’s one reason he and his wife are now looking to sell the farm and possibly return to retired life in Florida.

The couple have just placed ads in local newspapers and have gotten just one response so far. The farm, though, remains open and blueberries are still being harvested.

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