Bird Haven’s berries: New owners learn on the job with first pick-your-own season

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 03, 2017, by Mickey Rathbun

On a sultry Thursday morning in mid-July, Emily Endris greets a couple of mothers with young children on the farmhouse porch at Bird Haven Blueberry Farm in Southampton. Endris, who owns the farm with her husband, Andrew, chats with the moms while the children play with the Endrises’ dog, Sadie, a friendly husky mix. Andrew is working in the berry field with Emily’s parents, Ann and Roger Walaszek, who have come from Cape Cod to help for the day.

Several more customers are out picking berries in the long rows of bushes whose branches are heavy with fruit. As the children head out to fill their colorful pails with blueberries, two men from ServiceNet Farm in Hatfield arrive to pick up a 20-pound box of berries.

The days at Bird Haven Blueberry Farm are so busy it’s hard to believe that the Endrises are new to the business and that the farm has only been open to the public for two weeks. But the farm has been in operation for more than 30 years, and the Endrises are discovering, to their delight, that running the farm is a family, and community, affair.

“Everyone has been so welcoming and supporting,” Emily says. “We feel so lucky to be here.”

Passing the torch

The Endrises bought the farm two years ago from John and Silvija Pipiras, who started it in 1984, eventually adding raspberries, gooseberries, black currants and Asian pears. The Pipirases sold the couple nine acres of farmland and kept one acre for themselves with their house on the property. The Bird Haven farm store operates out of a first-floor room in the house that opens onto the porch. It sells flowers, berries, and a variety of produce from nearby farms.

The farm’s main business is pick-your-own berries. “We couldn’t possibly pick all those berries ourselves,” Emily says. “It’s a great activity for families with little ones.” Some people just fill a pail, others pick 20 or 30 pounds and freeze them.”

The Endrises will eventually build their own house on the farm, but in the meantime, they live in Hatfield with their 2-year-old son, Liam. Emily teaches fifth grade at the Smith College Campus School in Northampton. Andrew is on leave from Beyond Green Construction in Easthampton, where he manages the solar division, designing and installing solar panels.

The couple had been looking for farmland to buy for several years. “Ever since I was a kid I wanted to have a farm,” Andrew says. They were not specifically in the market for a berry farm, but Andrew wanted to become involved in sustainable farming and local food production. When they saw the blueberry farm, they fell in love with it.

The gravel driveway winds through the woods to the farmhouse, which is surrounded by flower gardens. A horse and sheep share a paddock behind the house. Beyond that are the berry field and Asian pear orchard. The property feels very secluded but is close to the centers of Easthampton and Southampton.

John Pipiras is thrilled to have passed on his business to the Endrises. “You can see the smile on my face,” he says. “I do love it, but there was a freedom in passing it along to someone we knew would take care of it.”

Getting a toehold

And the Endrises are eager to continuing doing that. “We thought it was a good thing for the community to keep the farm going,” Andrew says. “It would have been sad to see it disappear. The community has really embraced us. I had no idea so many people would come.”

Being part of the community is important to the Endrises. They are happy to see many of the Pipirases’ loyal customers return to Bird Haven this summer. The farm supplies berries to several local businesses, including Crooked Stick Pops in Easthampton and Café Evolution in Florence. “It’s nice to be supporting independent businesses,” Emily says.

They belong to CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), an organization that assists and promotes local farms.

Pipiras stands by as an enthusiastic mentor, offering advice and help when needed. “I told the young people I’d be happy to do some work, but don’t even think of paying me! I’m like a granddad. Think of me as family.”

The Endrises say they are grateful for his help. Emily admits that it’s been a steep learning curve. “Anticipating the opening on July 4 weekend was very stressful,” she says. “But now that we’re full on, it’s really fun. We’re happy with how it’s going. The customers are so friendly. We really enjoy being here. And Liam loves it. He just wants to ride on the tractor and look at the horse!”

Going natural

Although the farm does not yet have its official organic certification, it has been chemical-free for many years. “The first year we had the farm, the birds wiped us out,” Pipiras says. “That’s why we named it Bird Haven. We sprayed the fruit with pesticides for a few years, but it didn’t feel right. I had to put on a protective suit so I could spray. We stopped doing that and put up netting to keep the birds away.”

The Pipirases also stopped using chemical fertilizer. “We realized we didn’t need it. The grass itself is a fertilizer if you keep mowing it. Since we stopped using chemicals, the farm is so much healthier. We didn’t have any earthworms when we started and now there are lots of them. Worms mean the soil is recycling itself. Now, there’s a good biosystem. You don’t want to disturb it.”

The Endrises are planning to install a cable-supported net system when they can afford it. They estimate that they lose 10 percent of their berry crop to the birds. Pipiras points out that growing without nets has advantages. “They’re a lot of work to keep patched up. And nets keep out helpful insects like dragonflies that eat pests that hurt the berries.” All things considered, though, he agrees nets are worth the trouble.

According to Pipiras, this year has brought a bumper crop of blueberries, thanks to the cool spring weather and plentiful rain. “Last year was difficult because of the drought,” he says. “The birds ate the berries just to get the moisture. We lost 30 percent of our crop to the birds last year.”

A learning experience

Keeping the farm up and running is a lot of work, as Emily and Andrew have discovered. There are around 1,100 blueberry bushes, with 12 varieties of berries that ripen throughout the season, including Rubelles, Jerseys and Bluerays. “Customers like different types. Some like big, juicy ones; others like them smaller and sweeter,” Andrew says. As he talks, he pops ripe berries into his mouth. “I could eat blueberries all day.”

Andrew says he loves working outdoors. “Every day I get to go out here I feel it’s a blessing. I’m learning as I go.”

For their first season, the couple decided to work the farm by themselves without hiring employees. “I want to dig in deep, to be involved in all aspects of the business,” says Andrew. “I want to have an intimate relationship with the bushes so that when I hire someone I can tell them what to do.”

“We wanted to see what it takes to run the farm,” adds Emily. “Now we definitely know where we need help.”

The gooseberry and black currant season finished in mid-July. Raspberries are still available for picking. After the berry season ends in late August, the Asian pear business begins. The farm has a dozen or so trees and looks forward to a busy pick-your-own season that will wrap up in October.

Looking into the future, Andrew says the Manhan Rail Trail extension will run right past the farm. The Endrises plan to make Bird Haven accessible to bicyclists. “It’s years away,” he says. “We’ll have lots to do in the meantime.”