In 1944, when Glenn Aldrich was 12, he helped his father carry blueberry plants into an old sheep pasture next to their home. The family then planted the first commercial blueberries in Lewis County and some of the first in the state.
Maybe it was fate, says Aldrich ’58, ’62, but somehow his father had found the perfect crop for the soft acid soils along the Cowlitz River. The berries flourished there in Mossyrock, a pretty pocket of the valley.
Sixty-eight years later those berry bushes tower over Aldrich. In the intervening years, he has added some 20 more acres, spent time in the Air Force, taught vocational ag to high schoolers, raised sons Chris ’87 and Jason ’92, and helped found the Washington Blueberry Commission in 1969.
When I called the farm to see if Aldrich would be willing to be interviewed for this story, his wife Wisten was quick to answer. “Oh sure. He majored in talking,” she laughed. “Well, he majored in agriculture, I think. But he could have minored in talking.”
So as I walk up the drive between that original field of blueberries and a set of barns, I’m not surprised that Aldrich has started the conversation before we even make our introductions. Pointing to the field he explains these are Rancocas blueberries, an early variety known for high yields, size, and flavor.
There are three or four other fields around the state that are about the same age, Aldrich explains, and some even older. These first plants on his farm came from Eberhardt’s Nursery on Steamboat Island, in south Puget Sound. Farmer Joe Eberhardt helped introduce the blueberry to the region and also developed some of his own varieties—the Eberhardt and the Olympia.
The cultivated blueberry hasn’t been around all that long. The highbush cultivated blueberry that we know today was born in New Jersey in the early twentieth century, Aldrich says, alluding to the work of Elizabeth White. The daughter of a cranberry farmer, White enlisted the help of local wild-blueberry pickers to go into the woods around her family’s cranberry bogs and find and tag the best wild berry bushes with desirable fruit qualities such as good size, flavor, pickability, and storability.
With the advice of U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Frederick Coville, White crossed several varieties—and planted 3,000 seedlings. Only two good varieties came out of those first efforts, but over the next several years, according to Coville’s reports, White and her collaborators produced several more successful varieties.
Coville worked with farmers along the eastern seaboard in places like New Jersey and New Hampshire to find wild cultivars to use in crosses and hybrids and establish the foundation for our blueberry varieties today. Several, including Brooks, Rubel, and Sooy (named for one of the pickers from Elizabeth White’s farm) were used to make the early crosses and until recently were in the genetics of almost all commercial berries.
In his decades growing berries for sale and berry bushes for nursery stock, Aldrich has seen the industry develop—and now, as new health information about the berries has become fodder for the mainstream press, demand has skyrocketed. “There’s no doubt about it, the health news has been fabulous for our marketing.” According to the U.S. Blueberry Council, the fruit is an excellent source of vitamin C, manganese, fiber, and antioxidants.
It’s the anthocyanins, says Aldrich. The pigments that make the blueberry blue are also found in eggplants, black currants, and cranberries. They’re credited with having high antioxidant effects, protecting the cardiovascular system from oxidized cholesterol, and reducing artery-clogging plaque. Research on the benefits of blueberries is still in its early stages, but recent findings have credited the fruit for lowering blood sugar, preserving eyesight by protecting against macular degeneration, and protecting memory.
For decades most of Washington’s blueberry farms have been like Aldrich’s: small, intensive, and local. “The west side farms can range from a fraction of an acre to hundreds of acres,” says Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Blueberry Commission. But in recent years blueberries have moved east of the Cascades into the Columbia Basin, where they’re being planted by the hundreds of acres. The big issues on the east side are irrigation and making the soil acid enough to host the high-yielding blueberry plants. Heat is a lesser concern. Still, the berries do best in cooler environments at the edges of woods, in coastal areas, and in mountain clearings.
But there are benefits east of the mountains, says Schreiber. “They don’t have the insects or diseases that occur in wetter areas, which means there are lots of organic berries.”
With the increase in demand and new berry bushes going in all over the state, blueberry production has increased from 20 million pounds to 60 million since Schreiber started with the commission four years ago. “Each year our crop has been a record size,” he says. “We’re expecting that again in 2012.”
For those who want to grow their own blueberries, WSU Extension advises planting them during their dormant season between January and March west of the Cascades, or March to April in Eastern Washington. Ideally they would be two-year-old root stock or three-year-old plants in containers. When the lack of acidity is an issue, home gardeners can amend the soil with shredded pine bark or a sulfur product. They reach full production stage around eight years—getting five to six feet high and producing up to 25 pounds of fruit per plant. The bushes bloom in late April and early May and are ready to be picked from July through September. “In the warmest spots in Eastern Washington they will start picking at the end of June,” says Schreiber. “August is the peak of the season. And the last will be picked in late October.”
Pick your blueberries four to five days after they turn blue, when the sugar levels are highest. Then check back every three to five days since berries on a cluster do not all ripen at the same time. Fresh berries should last up to two weeks in a refrigerator. They also freeze well. Simply rinse them and spread them on a cookie sheet and set in a freezer until frozen through. Then store them in baggies.
For most home berry growers, the biggest problem is the birds that will swoop in and steal away the berries as soon as they’re ripe. The best solution is simply netting the berries to keep the birds out. But there are a few other concerns, including an aptly named fungus, mummy berry, which leaves the fruit white, hard, and inedible. Mummy berry is prevalent after long wet springs, especially if affected fruit from the previous year is left on the ground under the bush. There is a fungal spray to use on developing blossoms, but one of the best ways to address this is to rake out beneath the bush in early spring and to immediately remove the blighted shoots and affected berries when you see them.