By Kristie Snyder,
For Pat Hickey and Karin Dahlander of Hillberry, farming is a family affair. The couple owns a young blueberry farm perched on a beautiful hillside in Berkshire, running it with the help of their parents, children, and friends. This year, for the first time, they are marketing their fresh blueberries in GreenStar's Produce Department.
Neither Pat nor Karin has a farming background (they are both former GreenStar employees — Pat still works a sub shift now and then). But as owners of prime farmland in Berkshire, they knew they wanted to put the land into production. They settled on perennial crops, and a consultation with Cornell Cooperative Extension and soil maps of the area pointed to blueberries as a crop likely to succeed. The idea "felt right," according to Pat — they liked the idea of farming a crop that is less subject to pest and disease pressure than other fruits, and thus well-suited to organic practices. They researched blueberry culture for two years while cover cropping the ground that would receive the plants, and Hillberry was born. (Their ten-year-old daughter Willa contributed the name. "We have berries on a hill!" she said.)
Pat and Karin's four children, Willa, Emmitt, August, and Winter, form an integral part of the farm. Willa and Emmitt help with picking and looking after their younger brothers. ("We have the cutest blueberry pickers," Pat's mother, Carol, pointed out.) On a recent visit to the farm, Willa noticed a plant with some discolored leaves and pointed it out to her father, who suggested it might indicate some sort of mineral deficiency in the soil. "This field is for the kids," Karin said. "It's something to come back to and be able to make an honest living at."
Pat's mother and Karin's father also contribute help with harvest, weeding, and whatever else is necessary. "We couldn't have done this without the support of our family," Karin said. Friends help pick, too, though this year the increased production means hiring pickers for the first time.
Their 2,800 blueberry bushes, planted over three acres on a hillside, form over two miles of rows, if lined up end-to-end. When ordering the young plants, Pat chose every variety offered (17), which means a range of flavor, as well as a longer harvest period — berries ripen from mid-July through the beginning of September. Now in their third and fourth years since being planted, the bushes are offering up a full harvest this summer. They are pond-irrigated (though this year so much rain has fallen irrigation hasn't been necessary), and mulched with chips from a small nearby lumber mill.
The berries are grown following organic guidelines, though the farm is not yet certified. "We have some pests," Pat said, "but we have enough to share. We've factored in losses. I don't want to spray anything. Bugs serve a purpose, too." Birds haven't proven a large problem so far, and Pat pointed out that, while some eat berries, many birds eat insects as well, keeping the farm in ecological balance.
In addition to being able to buy fresh berries by the pint in the Produce Department, GreenStar customers can also enjoy Hillberry's fruit in pies, muffins, crisps, and other treats produced by the Co-op's bakery. Two chest freezers allow Hillberry to preserve the harvest for a longer sales season, and they have been selling to the GreenStar bakery as supplies allow. Pat recently finished construction of a walk-in cooler using "Cool-Bot" technology, which modifies a regular window air conditioner to achieve walk-in cooler temps at a much lower cost than installing a conventional cooler. The cooler allows them to keep larger amounts of fresh-picked berries in prime condition before sale.
Produce Manager Andrew Hernandez was delighted to have another local source of blueberries to offer this year. "They're really good — they're fat and juicy. I ate a whole pint in 20 minutes the other day," he said. "I'm just super-happy to be supporting this family farm. Seeing the different generations out there all working together — it's really beautiful."
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September brings the anniversary of Brazil's declaration of independence after centuries of Portuguese rule, the birthdays of legendary boxer "Rocky" Marciano, writer Truman Capote, and American revolutionary Samuel Adams ("I'll have a Samuel Jackson"), and the autumnal equinox. Summer's over ... how short it was. While I will lament the end of summer until it returns again, we can at the very least look forward to the rich and vibrant local harvest that continues on through this most comfortable of months. Stick and Stone Farm brings us delicious heirlooms tomatoes, green beans, and three kales: Red Russian, dino, and curly. We've got local apples — Sansa, Cox Orange Pippin, Pink Pearl, and more; and plums — Castelton, Long John, Fortune — from Black Diamond Farm; plus more veggies from Blue Heron Farm — broccoli, celery, cilantro, garlic, red potatoes, and tomatoes. Here comes fall, "que sera sera."