Blueberries adapted to area flavorful fun at valley farms

jholland@modbee.comMay 27, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
    Recent stories written by John
    E-mail: jholland@modbee.com

— The coast of Maine will lie a few miles outside Modesto for the next few weeks.

It's blueberry-picking time on farms that have taken this Northeastern crop and adapted it to the sunny San Joaquin Valley.

The five-acre VanderHelm Farms on Albers Road has plenty to offer to customers, who can pick their own or let the staff do it.

"I think we're really successful so far because the berries are big and people really like them," owner Corrie VanderHelm Davis said during a Thursday morning tour.

The season likely will run through June for many growers and into July for some.

Plant breeders came up with varieties that can take the heat in California, Florida and other places far from the chilly climes where wild blueberries grow.

It doesn't hurt to have health experts, including TV's Dr. Mehmet Oz, singing the fruit's virtues.

"Dr. Oz says they're good for you, and he's usually right," Constance Gehring of Oakdale said after picking about 3 pounds at VanderHelm Farms.

It charges $2.75 a pound for berries you pick, discounted to $2.50 for 12 or more pounds. It's $5 per pound if an employee does it.

The patch is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

The state's blueberry industry emerged in the mid-1990s. San Joaquin County has become a key player, putting the crop through packing houses much like its cherries.

Stanislaus and Merced have some berry patches, too; some of them are open to public picking.

"The nice thing about blueberries is they have no thorns," Davis said. "They're easy for kids."

Davis, an Escalon resident and former dairy farmer, has grown the berries for two years. She has help from two of her six sons, Ron and Ryan, and their wives, Sarah and Carla.

They use drip lines to irrigate the bushes with canal water and add fertilizer to provide the acidic soil blueberries like. The main pests are birds, such as the oriole that flew off with a blueberry in its beak as Davis talked with a visitor.

She tries to deter birds with flashy metallic ribbons and old-fashioned scarecrows, the latter of limited use.

"They work for a little while, and the birds get used to them," she said.

VanderHelm blueberries can be found at a few stores and produce stands, as well as in pies at Bloomingcamp Ranch, just east of Oakdale.

Davis enjoys them fresh in the season and frozen the rest of the year. She makes a blueberry syrup for a cheesecake created from scratch.

Meanwhile, about 10 miles west of Modesto, amateur blueberry pickers can see what awaits at Ott Farms.

"The crop is looking great," Courtney Ott said by email. "This is our fourth harvest, and we are expecting 15,000 pounds per acre. Harvest began on May 11 and will last until June 30."

Ott Farms, which also has cherries, is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Back at VanderHelm Farms, Gehring talked of the joys of picking local fruit.

"You know where the food comes from," she said. "Sometimes when you go to the market, you don't know what you're getting."

Her friend Mavis Fleming of Oakdale came away with more than a container of blueberries. "This is so enjoyable," she said, "and it gives me a deeper appreciation for people who work in the fields all day."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.




WHERE TO PICK

Pick-your-own blueberry farms in and near Stanislaus County, as listed at www.pickyourown.org:

• VanderHelm Farms, 1678 Albers Road, east of Modesto, (209) 614-8307 or www.vanderhelmfarms.com

• Ott Farms, 3082 Shiloh Road, off Paradise Road southwest of Modesto, http//:otttohavethebest.com

• Blueberry Bluff: 684 S. Missouri Ave., Waterford, (209) 874-1260 or (209) 534-8507

• Jessop Ranch: 21386 S. Murphy Road, Ripon, (209) 824-0341

BERRY HEALTHY

A cup of blueberries contains about 25 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C and 15 percent of the RDA of fiber.

The fruit is among the best sources of antioxidants, which may protect people from cancer, heart disease and the effects of aging.

BLUEBERRY FARMING

San Joaquin County ranked second in blueberry production among California counties in 2011, behind Tulare. San Joaquin grew about 10.2 million pounds, generating $24.1 million in gross income for farmers.

California ranked eighth in the nation in blueberry production in 2011, with about 33 million pounds. Maine led the way with 83.1 million pounds, followed by Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey, Georgia, Washington and North Carolina.

The nation's crop totaled about 511 million pounds in 2011.

Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council; California Department of Food and Agriculture

ON THE WEB

www.blueberry.org: The Web site of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, representing growers of domesticated rather than wild, or lowbush, varieties

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