Monthly Archives: May 2018

Don’t count your Berries before they Bloom

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Agriculture is a fierce master. Whether you are rich or poor, meek or strong, an experienced farmer or a novice, the weather rules with impartial disregard. I would dance naked in the field under a full moon if I thought it would help. Hell, I’d dance naked in downtown Perth at midday on a holiday weekend if it would make a difference.

I was out west visiting family when my babies broke dormancy (and when I wrote my last blog). When I returned home and raced out to the field, anticipating to see multitudes of blooms destined to become my first salable blueberries, realization dawned with gut wrenching despair. I saw, instead, row after row of brown, dead branches.

Normally in the fall, blueberry plants turn a gorgeous red as they ‘harden’ for winter. But last year our record breaking heat wave was immediately followed by a killing frost and green leaves gasped their last breath and fluttered to the ground, without the benefit of turning red. Being the novice that I am, I wondered at the time if that would have an impact, but it’s impossible to predict what damage will be done until the plants break dormancy in the spring. That they didn’t get a chance to harden properly, combined with the fact that some stuff didn’t get done last year on account of my broken ankles, the result this spring was disheartening, to say the least.

My friend and mentor Charles (who owns Wilmot Orchards in Newcastle) says that the roots are not dead – that the bushes will grow back, it will just take a couple of years. Two years feels like a long time to me. I know that everyone whose lives are intimately invested in agriculture goes through things like this in one form or another. I have a coaster that reads – we can’t direct the wind, we can only adjust our sails. Well the wind had died and my sails were flapping loose.

After mourning came acceptance. The heavy weight of despair was slowly lifted by a gentle breeze allowing me to adjust my sails, as well as my mindset. The only thing to do is put it behind me and move on. But I’m moving on more slowly. That’s ok – it’s probably better for this aging novice than riding the waves at 50 knots pushed by a gale force wind. I will get as much of the netting done as I can but with so much crop devastation, it’s less urgent. I also have more planting to work on. It will all get done, as my friend Nancy says, in the fullness of time. I’m practicing staying in the present and taking it day by day. The bittersweet moral of this story is – you know what’s coming – don’t count your blueberries before they bloom.

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Field of Dreams

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I built it and they came – the birds I mean. For the past two years I have been wrestling with what to do about avian protection in my blueberry field. Last year, after one beautiful weekend of picking, the little airborne buggers decimated every berry left on the bushes. My original plan was to overhead net the entire field but the mere thought of the work to build the  infrastructure (not to mention the additional cost) felt darn near soul shattering. I have to dig nearly 150 holes three feet deep, cut trees from the back of the property, transport them to the field and put them into the holes, level them all at nine feet high, build a wire support system on top and then anchor the whole lot into the ground with scary three foot long metal anchors. The netting itself is installed each year before the berries ripen and taken down after harvest.  After resolutely researching  easier options like predator bird scares,  individual row netting, fake snakes and owls, shiny pinwheels, scarecrows, drones and sprays,  I came to the conclusion that  the only surefire and practical protection  from the dreaded starlings, robins and blackbirds is overhead netting (getting the farm to this point over the past four years has been a physical and financial bloodbath – now is not the time to be hesitant). And while this venture will hopefully provide a profitable and agreeable retirement for myself, it is also the realization of a long held dream, a dream that was crystallized in the summer of 2014 during a fateful trip to Philadelphia.

I was recovering from 2 broken ribs and my youngest son Max, who seldom ever asked for anything, asked me to take him to Philadelphia to visit a girl with whom he’d met during a wrestling competition. And so, with the assurance that a three day visit from him was ok with her mother, we set out. I was planning on camping close by while working on my Merry Blueberry business plan. (Unbeknownst to me, Max and Laura’s ‘in real life’ relationship consisted of a 3-minute conversation at a tournament the month before, and unbeknownst to both Max and me, Laura’s family were mega multimillionaires). We pulled into their mansion with eyes wide.  After a short, surreal visit, I was talked into  staying in one of their ‘guest wings’. It all turned out well – Max and Laura were deliriously happy to spend time together, I got a lot of research done, but my biggest excitement was when they found out I was starting a blueberry farm and took us to a local u-pick.  Standing under the gauzy canopy of aqua overhead netting, I fantasized that the leafy domain of berry laden bushes was my own field. With imagined proprietorship, head dizzy with excitement, I watched happy people picking.  My field will be just like this, I whispered breathlessly to myself (still so blissfully innocent and naïve as to what was actually involved in starting a blueberry operation). In that moment, my embryonic dream was activated into a fierce nugget of determination.  Max just smiled and shook his head with resignation. He knows me well.

That suspended spiderweb of aqua netting may not seem like much to the casual observer but it was the cloud into which I poured my vision of the future. So when I found out much later that that particular netting, which so perfectly evoked sky and joy and promise to me, was the most flippin expensive brand of bird netting on the market, I was crushed. Alas, pride and dreams don’t thicken wallets and I was forced to ditch the idealistic picture in my minds eye of a transcendent lacework sheltering my precious crop. But the blueberry gods took pity on me (may I offer you another broken ankle, oh fruity overlords?). After many laborious rounds of international phone tag and wagering, I found a vendor in Windsor, Ont. willing to sell me what I needed at a good discount. Guys. I got my aqua cloud. Now I just have to figure out how to put it in the sky.

So far on this multi-year journey I have been fairly steadfast, but I admit I’m weary. I need to stay the course…walk the line …and all the other euphemisms to coax my battle worn body back into the trenches this summer. I remind myself that my field of dreams is almost, nearly, seemingly on the brink of becoming a reality. And it’s not for the birds.