Crop Spot: Blueberries

This story was originally printed in the ‘2022 Local Food Guide for Michigan’

Blueberries in a yellow crate at Buchan's Blueberry Hill in Traverse City, Michigan

“Southwest Michigan has the perfect climate for growing blueberries,” says Joan Donaldson of Pleasant Hill Farm in Fennville. “Historically, the area was called the Fruit Belt of Michigan.” Wild blueberry plants are native to Michigan and were gathered by indigenous communities long before European colonization. It wasn’t until the early 1920s that commercial berry planting was popularized in this region. Today, Michigan has almost 21,000 acres of blueberries across 600 farms.

In Southwest Michigan, the proximity to Lake Michigan and the land’s naturally acidic soil create the ideal environment for blueberry growing. Officially called the Lake Effect, the microclimate generated by the lake keeps bordering lands cooler in early summer (preventing early bud emergence and the potential of freezing) and warmer in late fall, resulting in an extended growing season.

Despite the favorable conditions, blueberry growers face significant industry challenges. Pest management has become increasingly difficult, especially for Certified Organic farms like Pleasant Hill. Insects without predators, like Spotted-Wing Drosophila and the Stem Gall Wasp, reproduce rapidly throughout the growing season causing growers to spend countless hours and dollars to remedy the damage; this wasn’t always the case.

“Forty years ago, we had to spray for a pest that emerged near the 4th of July, buzzed around for a week, and died. Now we have five or six weeks of insects that can destroy a crop overnight unless we spray a certain very costly organic compound,” Donaldson says.

Harvesting blueberries is no small task. There are two methods for harvesting: mechanical and by hand. Hand harvesting is the preferred method for the fresh berries you see in stores or markets because of the harvester’s ability to manually select ripe berries. Still, when it comes to the mechanical method, “the person driving a mechanical harvester is an artist and works the machine so it doesn’t harm the berries or the bushes. The newer machines can be fine-tuned and as John [Joan’s husband] travels down a row of bushes, he will often change the vibrations to meet the ripeness of the fruit.”

Pleasant Hill Farm does not employ folks to pick their berries, but most blueberry farms (and fruit farms in general) rely heavily on migrant farmworkers to harvest their crop. Without seasonal migrant workers alongside the hard work of growers, Michigan’s blueberry industry would look much different.

No matter the harvesting method, blueberry farming takes a lot of work. “I think one concept folks need to understand is that earning a living as a farmer is challenging and demands working long hours almost every day, yet the work is rewarding,” Donaldson says.” The best way to help farmers is to buy locally.”

Michigan Blueberry Facts

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Vaccinium sect. Cyanococcus

NUMBER OF BLUEBERRY FARMS: 600

AMOUNT OF BLUEBERRIES GROWN ANNUALLY: 100 million pounds

ACRES DEVOTED SOLELY TO BLUEBERRIES: 21,000

MICHIGAN ECONOMIC GENERATION: $132 million/year

BLUEBERRY HEALTH BENEFITS: High in antioxidants, dietary fiber, vitamin C, and manganese

*All numbers are approximations Source: Michigan State University Extension

Pleasant Hill Farm is located at 5859 124th Ave, Fennville, Michigan. Visit them online at pleasanthillblueberryfarm.com

Emily Row is the Brand and Media Manager at Taste the Local Difference. You may contact her via email [email protected]