Spring freeze is reminder of nature's unpredictability and a farmer's resiliency
This was shaping up to be a banner year for blueberries at Brandywine Farm in Rolla, Mo. As spring unfolded, the bushes filled with blossoms while honeybees from rented hives buzzed around, taking care of their pollination duties.
After five years of renovation on the farm, Pat Marti was eagerly anticipating blueberry season. The U-pick operation had been closed to the public during the painstaking process of removing old, unproductive bushes and replanting new ones. Finally, the farm would be ready when the berries ripened in June.
Mother Nature had other plans. Winter returned with a vengeance the third week of April. Below-freezing temperatures settled across the farm for two nights in a row at the absolute worst time for berry development. The unseasonable weather took its toll. Within a couple of weeks, Pat could tell that many of the blooms had been damaged and dropped without forming fruit.
“We were really looking forward to being able to open this year,” Pat said. “I was heartbroken. I had been out to the patch and saw how good everything looked, and in two or three days, everything changed.”
It was another blow in an already devastating year for Pat and her family. Her husband, Larry, an orthopedic surgeon affectionately known as “Doc” to nearly everyone who knew him, died last August at age 82 after suffering two strokes. They were married for 61 years.
The Martis, stalwarts of the Rolla community for more than 44 years, purchased Brandywine Farm in 2010 from previous owners, Dave and Mary Hinze. The Hinzes opened the farm in 1982, but after Dave’s death, Mary decided to retire from the venture.
“We just happened to see that the farm was for sale and hated the idea of it closing down,” Pat said. “It’s such a community tradition. I loved coming here with my kids and grandkids to pick blueberries long before we ever considered buying it. Larry had several cattle farms of his own, so we bought Brandywine for me. It’s always been considered my farm.”
While Pat—called “Nan” by family and friends alike—is ultimately in charge, the blueberry operation has always been a family affair. She and Larry have five children, 23 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Through the years, many of those family members have helped out on the farm, especially during the short-but-hectic blueberry season from mid-June to mid-July.
Even though Doc Marti worked long hours at Mercy Clinic in Rolla, he would usually be on hand for the busy pick-your-own Saturdays at Brandywine, his wife recalled fondly.
“He never met a stranger and always had a smile. He just genuinely loved people,” Pat said. “He liked to stand at the gate and talk to the customers. He even had a little dance for them as he waved them in.”
“But you didn’t want him picking berries,” she laughed. “You’re supposed to pick them one at a time. He’d pick a handful at a time, which meant he always had half a bucket of berries and a half bucket of other stuff. He was a better greeter than he was a picker.”
Neither one of them had any prior experience with blueberries, so learning the intricacies of production has been a continual process. Pat said much of the family’s education on the subject comes from attending “Blueberry Schools” hosted regularly by the University of Missouri Extension in Springfield.
“I like working outside, and I like growing things, but blueberries are a whole different story,” she said. “They’re the hardest thing I’ve ever grown. I can do vegetables; I can do flowers. I was used to things that I could just put in the ground, add a little fertilizer, and they’d flourish. Blueberries are not that way.”
First of all, she said, blueberries need an acidic soil. The pH should remain between 4.8 and 5.2. They also need lots of water. Successful blueberry production requires the soil to remain moist but not saturated. Brandywine’s entire 10-acre blueberry patch is dripline irrigated.
Pat follows a labor-intensive fertilization schedule that involves applying necessary plant nutrients bush by bush.
“We fertilize three times a year—in the spring, after picking in the summer and then again in the fall,” she explained. “Every few years we’ll take soil samples to see what we need.”
The bushes must be pruned over the winter. And during berry season, there’s a constant battle to keep weeds, insects and birds at bay.
“I love it, but it’s a lot of work,” Pat said. “I’m 82 now, and I just can’t do as much as I used to.”
The customers, however, keep her going. Brandywine Farm has a loyal following, Pat said, many of them tracing back several generations to the era when the Hinzes owned the farm.
“People just love it,” she said. “They come and they sit and they visit. I make blueberry muffins and jam, and they all sell out fast. Families will come and walk through the patch, eating blueberries as they go. We don’t mind. We never weigh the customers when they leave. We only weigh what’s in their bucket.”
The blueberry business flourished for the Martis until about five years ago when they noticed some of the bushes were dying. After soil-testing and talking with Extension specialists, they determined the most likely culprits were the age of the plants and a common fungal disease. The family decided temporarily close the farm to the public, allowing time to remove the old bushes, let the soil recover, add fresh topsoil and plant new bushes—nearly 1,000 of them. They have plans to add 600 to 800 more bushes in the next year or two.
“You should be able to get up to 30 years out of a blueberry bush, and some of these had been planted 40 years ago,” Pat said. “It was a long, difficult and expensive process to put all the new bushes in. We bought 2- to 3-year-old bushes, which can run anywhere from $6 to $8 each. You don’t want to start picking from them until they’re about 5 years old. This was going to be the year that they would have been ready.”
As a blueberry farmer, Pat said nothing has been as disappointing as watching all that hard work succumb to this spring’s freeze. But like her, the bushes are resilient. The Marti family expects this season to yield a limited number of blueberries, which they will likely harvest and sell at the farmers market in Rolla rather than opening for public picking.
“My dad always taught me to do the best you can do and work hard to make things happen,” Pat said. “So, we’re not going to give up. I don’t give up. And Larry wouldn’t want me to. He’d love to see us being able to pick again. It’s worth all the challenges.”
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