Pictured above is Maxine Collins who helps her daughter Jan Collins, owner of Wilton Blueberry Farm, with trimming the high bush blueberries so they don’t grow too tall for pickers. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

REGION — As blueberry farms kick off their u-pick season, owners report consistent business from both locals and out-of-staters who are undeterred by the pandemic to fill their freezers with summer fruit. U-pick blueberry operations may have an advantage this year compared to commercial blueberry farms that are facing potential farm worker shortages.

“Its been great, we’ve had a steady flow of customers here most days that we are open,” owner of Smith Ridge Farm in Strong, Ronica Smith said in a phone interview.

Smith Ridge opened its low-bush blueberry field to pickers on July 17. Smith said that she’s seen more out of staters raking berries at her farm this year than she’s seen since purchasing the property in 2016.

The pandemic hasn’t posed as much of a barrier to business according to Smith because u-picking is an outdoor activity where people can easily practice social distancing.

“I have a mask if people are going to be right nearby, but the weather has been great so we haven’t had to be in an enclosed space or anything like that. And people come with masks, but I don’t require it because they’re out in the field,” Smith said.

At Wilton Blueberry Farm, Rob Lively was out picking berries with his son who was visiting with his family from Shelburne, Vermont.

“Through the summer, we’ll probably pick close to 50 pounds,” Wilton resident Rob Lively said. “I keep coming back until the season’s over.” 

While Rob Lively was excited to add fresh blueberries to his breakfasts, his granddaughter Delphine Lively had another plan in mind for their harvest.

“Make a blueberry cake!” she shouted while plopping a few berries into her plastic container. 

The Lively family from left to right, Ben, Delphine and Rob have been frequenting the Wilton Blueberry Farm for stocking their freezer with berries since Jan Collins purchased the u-pick business in 2004. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

Owner of Wilton Blueberry Farm Jan Collins was already concerned about how many customers would be picking this year before the pandemic. She had to close the farm last year due to a harsh winter that prevented the majority of the bushes from fruiting.

“I’m blaming it on global warming,” Collins said. “The snow storms would change to rain at the end, and then there would be  a hard freeze and it killed everything basically above the snow line. So there were a few berries down low, but not enough to open.”

Collins was also worried about losing publicity once the Wilton blueberry festival was canceled.

“Some people thought that we had closed permanently, so its about getting the message out that we’re open,” she said while chatting with repeat customers in a row of blueberry bushes.

Since opening the farm on July 26, there has been a flow of locals and out of staters flocking to pick from bushes with rootstock dating back to the 1950s.

Owner of Varney Family Farm in Chesterville, Peggy Varney said that she’s seen an increase in locals frequenting her 10 acres of lowbush blueberry fields for the first time this year.

“I would say that we’ve had more locals here than we normally have, and we’ve been doing quite a bit of business,” Varney said in a phone interview. “We hand pick and take in pints to various businesses in Farmington and that’s been really good too.”

Like Collins, Varney also had concerns about her crop this year due to the cold and dry spring.

“We got rain just at the right time because there was nothing, and that just plumped everything up and the berries are excellent,” she said. “There’s a huge amount of berries out in the field, so that’s been nice.”

Varney also noted that now is the time to pick because with the current heatwaves, the berries are starting to soften.

Grace Firth from Firth’s Fruit Farm in New Sharon also beamed about her berries this year, saying that the crop is excellent.

“It’s on the large side, I would say compared to other years. I am not comparing it to last year, I was at least open last year.”

Firth’s berries suffered from the previous year’s harsh winter that Collins had described and although she was able to open, she produced very little from her five acres of high bush blueberries. This year she said that it is difficult to gauge business as the amount of u-pickers has been erratic.

While many pickers are accustomed to bringing their own containers for harvesting, the pandemic has influenced further precautions to prevent cross-contact with other pickers. Diane Oakes, whose primary residence is in Westbrook but also owns a lake house in Wilton, was enduring the scorching sun in a mask while collecting berries.

Diane Oakes said that her all blue outfit complete with a blue face mask was unintentional for her day of picking at the Wilton Blueberry Farm. She attributed her strategy of easy harvesting, tying a plastic coffee can around her neck, to her mother. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

Oakes was also ensuring that she remained a good distance from other pickers who were spread out in rows on either side of her. Other pickers harvested from more than a six foot distance from each other with masks dangling below their chins. Most secured their masks around their faces when weighing their final harvest at the farm shack.

“I feel very comfortable here,” Oakes said about her summer refuge in Wilton compared to her home in Westbrook. “I still take all of the precautions that I can take, as best as we can at this point. But I think the state is in pretty good shape and I just pray that it stays that way.” 

Oakes was picking for several hours to stock her freezer with a plenitude of berries for pies in the winter. She said that she was surprised at how healthy of an activity picking was for her mind during the pandemic.

“It relaxes my mind, especially right now. It’s an activity to take your mind off of everything,” Oakes said while filling a plastic coffee can tied loosely around her neck with berries.

The Wilton Blueberry Farm located at 83 McLaughlin Road in Wilton is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. except for when it rains. Smith Ridge Farm is located at 628 Taylor Hill Road in Strong and is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Varney Family Farm is located at 8 Sanborn Hill Road in Chesterville and is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Firth’s Fruit Farm is located at 26 Intervale Road in New Sharon and is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.

 

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