- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) - Owner Tom Pack let customers start harvesting Hobbit Hill Farm’s certified organic blueberries Wednesday, but nonpaying berry lovers already had raided some of his bushes.

“We have a lot of berries,” said Pack, whose pick-your-own farm south of Cross Keys and west of Port Republic has about 5 acres of blueberry bushes in production. “Unfortunately, the bears have eaten a lot of berries.”

The wet spring was bad news for most farmers but ideal for blueberry growers like Pack and brothers Delmer and Delmas Ratliff of Ratliff Christmas Tree and Blueberry Farm in northern Rockingham County. The berries do best in wet weather.

“With all this rain and everything we had, the berries are big, and the cold weather didn’t hurt at all because we have a later-blooming variety,” said Delmas Ratliff, who hopes to begin allowing customers into his fields the first weekend in July. “In fact, we had to take some off because we thought we had too many on them for the size of the bush.” Pack is growing three early varieties - Blueray, Bluejay and Patriot - at Hobbit Hill and said the spring weather was good for quality.

“They’re very plump and juicy,” he said, “and very tasty.”

Up To 200 Gallons

Blueberries don’t pay many bills for Pack and the Ratliffs, as other crops bring far more cash to their operations.

Pack said he was introduced to the fruit while visiting Maine as a child about 50 years ago and fell in love with it, and when he realized the acidic soil on his farm was ideal for the plants, he put blueberry bushes in. That was about 25 years ago, and his crop has been certified organic for more than two decades.

He primarily raises corn and soybeans, selling them as commodities. Blueberries, he said, bring in a bit less than $3,000 a year.

For the next three weeks or so, customers can visit the farm, pick berries and pay $3 a pint on the honor system as they leave.

The harvest ranges between 100 and 200 gallons most years, Pack said, increasing a bit each year. People are allowed to drop by the farm at 6460 Showalter Road - which has a Mount Crawford mailing address - as long as it’s light enough to see the fruit.

The farm doesn’t have a website or social media accounts. Customers used to get calls when the berries ripened, but he said an email list that’s grown to 150 or 200 people is the current contact method.

Pack said the bears haven’t been seen in the daytime, and he thinks they raid the patch overnight. They’re wild and scared of humans, so customers shouldn’t feel threatened if they catch a glimpse of one.

“They take off if they hear someone. They’re very shy of people,” he said. “If someone should see a bear while here, make a noise and they will take off immediately.”

‘Big As Quarters’

Christmas trees are the main crop at the Ratliffs’ farm at 19101 Ratliff Lane, north of Timberville.

But Delmas Ratliff said he and his brother must be on the farm each July to prune its Canaan firs, and they realized diversifying would allow them to make money at the same time.

“We started taking out small sections of Christmas trees,” he said, “and put blueberries back.”

They added 200 plants a year through last year, Ratliff said, when they reached about 950 bushes on more than an acre. They planted Nelson and Bonus blueberries, both late-season varieties known for their size.

“They’re supposed to get about as big as quarters,” he said.

So far, the patch has been a lot of work for a modest reward.

The soil wasn’t ideal for the bushes, Ratliff said, so he and his brother spent two years working in peat moss and use a special mulch to reduce pH levels. Lack of rain killed many plants the second year, prompting the installation of an irrigation system.

Sales last year totaled about $1,000, he said, but as their bushes grow, so do yields. Sales were only about $200 the first year, so they hope revenues will rise consistently.

Ratliff’s is a pick-your-own farm open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Opening day will be posted on the farm’s website and Facebook page.

Ratliff advised calling first because all the ripe berries sometimes are picked on Friday. Customers also should bring containers.

The brothers charge $3.50 a pound for their berries and are on-site to weigh the fruit.

Ratliff and Pack extolled the health benefits of blueberries, which the American Institute for Cancer Research says research has found the fruit’s nutrients and dietary fiber help reduce the risk of certain cancers.

Ratliff also notes that berry-picking is a good group activity.

“It’s a fun thing when families come and the kids come,” he said. “They have a good time doing it.”

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Information from: Daily News-Record, http://www.dnronline.com

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