On a recent Monday morning at Pelkey’s Blueberry Farm on Greenbush Road in Charlotte, an excited child’s voice carried over the hill: “Mom, do you see what I see? Those are all blueberries!”
The acres of blueberry bushes are impressive even to seasoned berry pickers, and belie the challenges of a very wet spring, which presented challenges not only at the Pelkey farm but berry farms across the state. Cassidy Myers, whose grandparents planted these bushes decades ago, said that while there was a slow start to the season, things have picked up over the last couple weeks.
Early in the season, she said, “we couldn’t get a lot of work done in the field, but berries love the rain. The past few days we’ve been really busy, which is nice.”
According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, strawberry harvest season is in June, and blueberries and raspberries are harvested July through October. With about 3.5 inches more rain than average, June was a challenge for strawberry pickers and growers across the state, but that same weather is a boon for blueberries. Melissa Beatty, owner of the Charlotte Berry Farm, said the difference is “feast or famine, depending on the rain.”
Water is great for strawberries, but too much is trouble. An excessive amount of rain can propagate fungus, create a welcoming environment for plant eaters like slugs, or rot the roots of the growing plants. Beatty said their strawberries grew fine this year because “early on, the rain didn’t hit as much.” Picking was another story.
“Strawberry season was shorter for us,” Beatty said. Though they usually offer a you-pick option, she said this year, “we didn’t have anyone picking. There’s no way we would have had people in there.”
Bob Castle of Fisher Brothers Farm in Shelburne said farmers expect rain, and the reason many berry farms are successful despite circumstances out of their control is because of planning. “There are any number of things a farmer can do to mitigate the effects of too much rain or too much sun, but the farmer better have thought of them well in advance and be pre-postioned to put them into action,” he said.
“Plant in raised beds, construct surface drainage or sub-surface drainage systems to handle excessive water, or grow in high tunnels or other greenhouse structures to mitigate the amount of water on foliage and the immediately surrounding soil, retarding the mold and fungus growth,” he said.
Berry pickers are a determined group of customers, however, and won’t be deterred by a little rain or a sparse crop. Jackie Anderson of Moriah, N.Y., crosses the Champlain Bridge every year to visit Pelkey’s. “We always come here to pick berries,” she said. “It’s so beautiful.” This year she brought some assistants, her boys Breyten, Colten and Traeh, enthusiastic helpers who occasionally popped berries in their mouths for sustenance.
Nearby, Katie Prescott, her mother Kathy Prescott, and her boys Cadence and Sharma were hard at work filling a tray. From the Bay Area of San Francisco by way of Keeyesville, N.Y., this is an important part of their summer. “We come here every year,” Katie said. “It’s a tradition.”