By Robert St. John
The Meridian Star
Yesterday I had a flashback. I was walking through my friend, Tim Goggans’, 40-acres of blueberries. It reminded me of walking among grape orchards in Napa or the olive groves of Italy.
It was about an hour after sunrise and dew still covered the berries. There was a slight mist in the distance and the atmospheric haze was just starting to clear. It felt like a cool Tuscan morning or an early Napa dawn. A group of workers were sitting on coolers and ice chests on the edge of the field, waiting for the sun to dry the dew off of the berries so they could be picked.
Standing there, among the rows, it struck me that that blueberries are probably the heartiest crop in South Mississippi. They grow in many other parts of the country, but they proliferate here.
Sure we have climate and soil conditions that can grow several vegetables and fruits, but they don’t thrive like blueberries. It never cools down during our summer nights and that keeps us from growing many items later in the year. Most fruits and vegetables need cool evenings to recover from the day’s stifling heat. Blueberries could care less— humid mornings, hot nights, bring ‘em on.
The main weather deterrent with blueberries is a late freeze. Once the bushes begin to bloom, a hard freeze will devastate the crop. Supposedly this will be a “down year” for blueberries, due to the late cold spells we experienced several months ago. Though walking among Goggans’ rows, the bushes were loaded with berries.
As Goggans and I walked down the manicured rows among the blueberries he described the different varieties and the characteristics of each. The life of a blueberry farmer is hectic this time of year. There is usually a six to seven-week window when all of the harvest work needs to be done. If the berries aren’t picked at the exact height of ripeness, it is over for the year.
His operation, Sandy Run Farms, ships to a local co-operative, but, lucky for us, he offers a u-pick ‘em opportunity to the general public. They also sell picked blueberries for those who aren’t interested in picking the berries themselves.
Blueberries are grown from Maine to Oregon, yet the South Mississippi acidic soil is perfect for growing blueberries. Raspberries can’t grow in the height of South Mississippi summers, but blueberries thrive, blackberries, too.
Goggans will pick 5,000 pounds an acre or over 200,000 pounds of blueberries this year.
Blueberries frequently top the list of the world’s healthiest foods as they have more antioxidants than any other fruit and many believe they can help prevent damage caused by heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. They are low in fat and sodium, and are one of the only natural foods that are blue in color.
Goggans grows two different varieties of blackberries and four varieties of blueberries. If one hangs around blueberry farmers long enough you’ll be well versed in terms such as Rabbit Eye and Southern High Bush. The varieties of blueberries grown locally at Sandy Run Farms are Brightwell, Climax, Alapaha, Powder Blue, and Premeire. Multiple varieties of blueberries are needed for cross-pollination. The Brightwell is Goggans’ favorite.
After an hour the dew had dried. The sun was higher in the sky and the humidity knob had been turned to high. It no longer felt like Napa or Tuscany. I was, once again, in the middle of a South Mississippi summer. There was no dew, it was hot and humid. The blueberry pickers were beginning to stir. I was headed to my truck and off to the comparative comfort of a 90-degree restaurant kitchen.
I drove away and left Goggans to his 200,000 pounds of blueberries. But not before purchasing a flat of berries. I plan to visit often over the next six weeks as these blueberries seem to be sweeter than most. I’ll pick up a few flats for the restaurants and before it’s over, I might even pick a few myself.