BACON HILL, N.Y. — Byron Winney says sour soil is the key to a sweet-tasting blueberry crop.
Customers must agree because his 40-acre farm, among the largest for the crop in New York, has been putting smiles on people’s faces for almost 50 years.
Grandparents and great-grandparents, who first started picking when they were teenagers, now bring younger generations to enjoy an annual summer rite of passage at Winney’s Farm in Saratoga County.
“My grandfather bought half the land around here in 1920 and the rest in 1952,” Winney said. “He raised 65 acres of gladiolus. My father didn’t like flowers, so he got the bright idea to raise blueberries instead.”
“The first thing you want to do is make sure the soil pH is down around 4.5,” he said. “Most people get a nice piece of property and say they want to raise blueberries, but they’re going to skip that part. That’s the most important thing. The ground has to be sour.”
The farm boasts 25 early-, mid- and late-season varieties, which attract people from throughout the region from July 4 to late August.
The site is only a half mile from the Hudson River in a rich agricultural district of eastern Saratoga County, surrounded by some of the area’s largest dairy farms. It’s an idyllic, pastoral scene with long uninterrupted rows of berry plants set against the backdrop of large, white puffy clouds and the southern Adirondack Mountains on the horizon.
The farm is also ideally located, from a business perspective, only 10 miles from downtown Saratoga Springs, a popular resort town renowned worldwide for its Thoroughbred racing meet. This summer, fans aren’t allowed at the track because of COVID-19. But the “Spa City’s” unique atmosphere still attracts many visitors and out-of-state license plates pull up to Winney Farm’s retail stand on a daily basis.
“We are not allowing anybody inside the stand,” Winney said. “You come to the stand, you wear a mask.”
Pick-your-own visitors are directed to specific rows and asked to maintain social distancing.
With or without a pandemic, getting people to follow instructions is one of the most frustrating aspects of the pick-your-own business, Winney said.
“Nine times out of 10 they’re going to do what they want to anyhow,” he said. “I kicked about four people out of the Brigittas today (they don’t ripen until August) because they aren’t ready. I said go over here to this patch. The Blue Cap, Blue Ray, Collins and Blue Jay — they’re loaded. I’ve had to do that so many times. I tell people go back 500 feet to the far end of the field and work your way back to where you parked. Nobody listens!”
Winney has had a policy of introducing new varieties every few years to “fill in gaps” so picking can take place steadily throughout the season. The most recent additions are late-season berries such as Aurora, Chandler and Bonus.
Adjusting soil pH is a costly and time-consuming process, but one that pays dividends. And it’s only one of many requirements for raising a good crop.
“You want to have clear sunlight in the field. You want to make sure they’re mulched when you plant them,” Winney said. “After you plant them, you can figure on pulling all the flowers off the first two years to make the roots grow. That will also enhance the height of the plant. If you’re lucky, by the third year you should be able to harvest a few quarts.”
He said weather in the early summer was ideal, but he’s hopeful for a cooler late season because sustained high heat can stress plants and damage fruit. Through mid-July there had already been more than a half-dozen days of temperatures well into the 90s in this part of upstate New York.
Winney said the farm’s close proximity to the Hudson River is an added bonus.
“Every time you get a storm going east to west, it stops at the river and we get the majority of rain on this (west) side of the river,” he said. “We just seem to pick up better rainfall. We also have an extremely high water table here. So we’re in good shape.”
“We’ve got a new irrigation pump and pond, and 3 miles of pipe. I broke everything out, set it up and then put it away,” Winney said, smiling. “We save a lot of money that way.”
With nearly a half-century of experience under his belt, he’s also learned a few tricks of the trade such as applying organic trace minerals and spraying plants with organic soap, which helps them retain moisture while reducing the need for chemicals.
“We really have no visible stress,” Winney said. “I won’t know until we sell every berry, but so far it’s been a good growing year. Everything’s going well.”