There were several times this summer when I wished that could have been a blueberry on the bush. So I could eavesdrop on the conversations between the families picking blueberries, especially the little kids. A lot of them had never seen a blueberry on a bush, let alone picked one. The kids really made the season fun.
We have highbush blueberries. They are as tall as an adult's shoulders, but there are berries right down to the level where a small person can reach them also. Families came for an outing with everything from babes in arms to a car full of teenagers. They brought their dogs along too. We had campers from some of the summer camps in the area.
Whenever I happened to be at the farm stand when a family with young kids showed up, I tried to put on a stern face and in a gruff voice quote to them the "rules" of the blueberry patch. "We require that you each sample the blueberries before you pick any for your buckets! I'm going to keep an eye on you while you're out there."
Some of the kids would look at me like I was a little strange, look at their parents, and then figure it was all a big joke. Some thought I was serious. But as far as I could tell, they all pretty much obeyed the rules. Actually, some of the kids never got many berries in their buckets at all, but from their faces and fingers they had "sampled" pretty well.
The smaller kids usually just sat down in front of one bush and never moved too far. The older ones would run up and down the rows, chasing each other until their parents called them back. Most of the families made a game of it - who can pick the most berries? Each child would bring their bucket up to the farm stand to be weighed separately, and their total compared to all the others in the family.
One dad challenged his boys to see who could pick the largest blue berry. They didn't pick many, but they roamed the entire patch looking for the biggest. Corey happened to be manning the stand for us that afternoon, and on him fell the task of judging the biggest berry of the handful the boys brought up. He made a good show of it too - weighing each one separately, and measuring the size of them - finally he said he just couldn't decide - they were all just about the same size, and all were huge. The kids were delighted!
One lady came several times to pick berries for her parrot at home. The bird loved fresh berries. The lady also had ferrets, who had developed a taste for blueberries but weren't as particular about only eating the fresh ones.
You could tell the kids from the city. We had a phone call from a customer wanting to know if they needed to bring along ladders to pick - after all we did advertise "high bush" blueberries. Not only hadn't some of the kids ever picked berries before (you could tell, because they'd try the green and pink ones, before deciding that the blue were ripe), but they wanted to know if there were any bears around. I guess they knew about bears in berry patches, and figured there would be one down at the end of the row. When I told them that we only had a bear once in a great while, I don't know if they were relieved or disappointed. Every noise in the woods, however, caught their attention. Mebbe they figured that those squirrels were really wolves or something.
We set up the pick-your-own (PYO) blueberry operation with families in mind, to encourage people to bring their children and even their pets. And we tried to keep things up to encourage people to come back again. and they did. Jim and I kept the rows between the blueberries and the fields mowed so that they were like a lawn for people to walk on. Handy for customers to use we placed picnic tables and benches in the shade. We rented a portapotty from Blow Brothers, which I thought was a strangely suitable name for a portapotty company to have. At the farm stand, Paul installed a water spigot for people to get a drink and wash off blueberry stained little faces and hands. There was room to park 15-20 cars right next to the farm stand and the blueberries.
Several families brought along a picnic lunch and made a day outing out of their blueberry picking. We had a lot of "regulars" who came back several times during the season, as different varieties of berries ripened up.
The first thing that people saw when they got out of their cars was a small kiosk with a map of the blueberry patch and quart containers with samples of each of the varieties that was then ripe. Each of the four varieties we have has a distinct flavor and sweetness, and we found that people have individual preferences. There were some customers that wanted to pick only the Jersey variety, while others liked the Elliott to use in cooking. And there were some that only wanted something blue to pick.
Most pickers used the tin berry buckets that we had available for them. The buckets hung in two rows on pegs on the side of the farm stand. Meryln and I made peg racks early in season for 10 5-quart buckets and 10 2 1/2-quart buckets. There were many days when all the buckets were in use and we had to dip into our supply of extra buckets for the pickers. The buckets certainly weren't anything special - I'd picked up a bunch of them at the paint department at Home Depot - but we ended up selling quite a few to folks who thought they were just the right size for berry picking and wanted to take one or two home. And they were the right size - but then that's why I'd bought them in the first place.
Since the buckets were not galvanized or anything, by the end of the season they had started to get rusty on the outside where they hung on the pegs out in the weather. When I shut down the farm stand for the season and put the blueberries to bed for the winter, I also applied a couple of coats of Rustoleum to the outside of each bucket. Blueberry blue, of course.
The Farmhouse is on the east side of the Bridgton Road. The road is also called Beech Hill Road, and it is now officially Maine State Route 107. According to Fred Meserve, who used to live in the Farmhouse and who wrote one of the first histories of Sebago, the road from Baldwin to Bridgton was first laid out around 1796. If it was laid out like most early roads in New England it was a wagon road, that followed an Indian trail, that followed a game trail. Route 107 is still pretty faithful to the original route, with all the twists and curves - but is now covered with asphalt.
Sometime in the past, the State Highway Department straightened the curve in front of the Farmhouse, and the road was moved to the west, away from the house. The grade of the old road can still be seen, and the space between the old road and the current Route 107 makes a great driveway and parking area right in front of the farm stand.
On the busy days this season, and there were a lot of them, there would be a dozen cars or more parked there all day long. As soon as one carload would finish picking and leave, another would drive in to take there place. Even on the slow days, there was a steady stream of people.
On one hand, we were very pleased at all the attention and customers. On the other hand, we could have easily used twice or three times as many berries to satisfy all the pickers. I usually would walk the rows of bushes at the beginning and at the end of the picking day to see how the berries were ripening up. At the end of some days it was if a hoard of locusts had been there - there was not a single blue blueberry to be seen! There were several times when we had to close for a few days to let the berries ripen up. We'd try to get the word out to folks by changing the message on our answering machine and posting the notice on the blueberry webpage, but there were still folks who didn't get the word and would show up, only to be disappointed. Most understood and came back when they were ripe, but there were a few who were pretty unhappy about the whole thing.
Penny asked our neighbor Carol Mayberry if her customers were so intense about the vegetables that Carol sold at their farm stand. "No, not usually" Carol said "they just don't seem to get too excited if we're out of squash or sweet corn."
"They do let me know, however, if they find you closed or out of blueberries. They think that I'm responsible or something." And it worked both ways - people were always asking us for corn or pumpkins, and we'd have to send them up the road to Carol's.
The building we bought from the Fire Company turned out to be just the right size. With a counter and window at the end facing the road it was handy to greet customers and cash them out when they finished picking. There was room for the cash register and scale to weigh the berries on the counter end, plus shelves for all the blueberry jellies, syrups, and knick-knacks we offered for sale. And, a refrigerator for the ready-picked quarts of blueberries that we had on hand for folks who didn't have time to pick their own.
We were talking to next-door neighbors, Tim and Carol Mayberry, one evening. They were showing us the wonderful old produce scale that they had just acquired. "Where did you get it?" I asked Tim.
"There's an old guy over in Denmark that has a bunch of them in his barn" Tim said. "You could probably find one for your blueberry stand if you wanted."
He gave us directions, and one cold and snowy night Penny, Allen and I took off over the frost heaves to Denmark to look at scales. I thought I had the directions right, and we pulled into the dooryard of a farmhouse and knocked on the door. "Come on in" the lady said, as she was trying to restrain some very large English sheepdogs in her kitchen. We came in, and asked if we could see the scales.
"Scales?" she asked, with a suprised look on her face. "Aren't you here to buy a puppy?"
"Isn't this the place that has scales for sale?" I asked.
"No, they have the next place up the road"
With that, we backed out of the kitchen with all the dogs, thanked her for her time, and slipped and slided back to the car. Sure enough, the next farmhouse was the one we wanted. The owner used to have a pick-you-own strawberry operation, and had several fields for people to pick - and a scale or two in each of the fields.
He took us out to the barn, and there lined up on tables were six or seven big white produce scales. We picked one out, dickered a little over the price, and lugged it out to the car. It had a large platform just the right size for a large blueberry bucket, and a set of numbers that you could read easily. The scale now sits on the side of the window in the farm stand, and has served us well. If we ever get really big, we now have two other scales as well.
After it had been there for a few weeks, it seemed as if the farm stand had been there forever - it just seemed to fit into things nicely. We are very pleased at how it all has worked out.
As soon as our blueberry webpage (see Maine Blueberries was posted, we started to get e-mail and phone calls from people who had seen the webpage. "When will you be open?" "When will the blueberries be ready to pick?" "Where can I buy a blueberry rake?" etc. etc.
One of the most interesting calls was from Marina, in Rochester, N.H. She represented a company that arranges tours and provides translation services for foreign visitors. Marina said "I understand that you are the blueberry expert for the State of Maine".
"Well, I've got some blueberry bushes, but I sure wouldn't call myself any sort of an expert".
Marina replied that she had a group of Russian lady farmers from St. Petersburg who wanted to visit a Maine blueberry operation and see how it was run. "They are planning on introducing high-bush blueberries to Russia, and would like some tips".
"I'd be glad to help out" I said. "And, depending on when they come to visit, I might be able to arrange some other blueberry operations in the area to visit as well".
A few weeks later Marina arrived at the Farmhouse with Tatiana, from St. Petersburg. Wayne Rivet from the Bridgton News also showed up to take pictures and do a story for the paper. Penny had made blueberry muffins, and we had muffins and coffee on one of the picnic tables under the big oak. Later I took them on a tour of the operation.
Tatiana was a wonderful lady - she now has a commercial flower business on 17 hectares there, and figured that the market is ripe to introduce blueberries to Russians. They are already used to going to the woods to harvest the wild, low-bush variety. Tatiana had a lot of questions about pruning, fertilizer, grafts, diseases, etc. She sampled some of our varieties, and decided that she was going to develop an operation there with 20,000 bushes. The climate is similar to Maine, and should work out well.
I took them down to Steep Falls and introduced them to Harold and Gail, owners of "Blueberry Acre". Harold gave the group a tour of his operation, and then Gail had iced tea for us on the screened-in porch. After Tatiana left us, she spent several days in Michigan at Hartman's Nursery, and then in New Jersey at a blueberry operation there. I wish her well.
Well, we ran out of blueberries before we ran out of customers. It was with regret that we hung out the "Closed for the Season" sign on August 19. The response from the public had been wonderful, and they had picked us clean! It was a great first season! With the pruning and fertilizing of the bushes, we are looking forward to an even better year next time!
[What a Cute Little Farm Stand!] [Our Russian Visitor] [Closed for the Season]
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Last updated January 7, 2002
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree