Valley Bounty: Blueberries

Robert Sobieski is a man who loves blueberries. “I never get sick of them,” he told me during a recent conversation. “Every time I’m out there I take a few handfuls. It’s just too hard to resist.” As the owner of River Valley Farm in Whately, it’s easy for Sobieski to indulge his passion for blueberries, or ‘blues’ as he affectionately calls them. Sobieski grows over 10 acres of blueberry bushes and is excited for pick-your-own blueberry season to begin any day now. “If you’ve never tried the local blues versus the ones you’d buy in the store, there’s just no comparison … It’s a burst of flavors when you bite down on it.”

Sobieski explained that his fruit set looks good this year, largely thanks to an active bumblebee season. Each May, Sobieski’s blueberry bushes bloom for only a few weeks. “At bloom time, you have this short window of opportunity to get the blueberries pollinated,” Sobieski explained. “If you’re only relying on honeybees, you’ll have a problem. They only want to work when it’s warm and sunny.” Bumblebees, on the other hand, will still emerge to work in cool and wet conditions. “One bumblebee can do the work of ten honeybees because they move so quickly and are so efficient. They’re native so they’re basically evolved to pollinate blueberry flowers.”

Sobieski’s preparations for harvest season began, of course, well before May. Blueberry bushes are perennial crops so instead of harrowing in his fields at the end of each year, Sobieski prunes his bushes to revitalize them. “You’re taking out the old growth, which is the least productive,” he told me, “and stimulating new growth which will turn into newer, healthier canes. Pruning River Valley Farm’s ten thousand bushes is a massive task that often lasts from November through April. However, maintaining the bushes is essential to the long-term sustainability of the crop. “You’re creating a cycle that will result in a healthier bush.”

That perennial cycle has been going on for decades; Sobieski manages the same blueberry bushes today that his father Francis planted the year after he founded River Valley Farm in 1977. “I’ve been pruning the bushes for 17 years,” Sobieski reflected. “It’s funny, after doing it for so long, I kind of know each bush a little bit.” He clarified with a laugh, “They don’t have names or anything like that, that’d be over ten thousand.” With plants as old as some family members, it’s not surprising that Sobieski has developed a close relationship with his blueberry bushes. Fortunately for the rest of us, pick-your-own season will give us all an opportunity to begin to get to know the Sobieski blueberry patch for ourselves.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)