Valley Bounty: Kelso Homestead Blueberries
Published July 22, 2023 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
At Historic Chester Farm, A Berry Good Season
By Jacob Nelson
For the Gazette
“This morning I was walking through the orchard grabbing handfuls of ripe blueberries and popping them in my mouth,” says Jim Gilman, owner of Kelso Homestead Blueberries in Chester. “There’s no better way to enjoy their full flavor.”
When berry season began in June, strawberries were the first on stage. Now in July, a whole host of other berries join the cast. Raspberries burst with flavor. Blackberries stain your hands. Currants and gooseberries are rarer finds – sweet, tart, and precious.
Everyone has their favorite berry. For many people, ripe blueberries, like little sapphire gems waiting to be plucked from their bush, are the pinnacle of summer. Having spent nearly 50 years off and on in his family’s blueberry orchard, Gilman would agree.
The Kelso Homestead, situated on a hilltop along Bromley Road, has been in Gilman’s family since the 1770s, predating the end of the Revolutionary War. He spent much of his childhood life there, soaking in memories of eras gone by.
“My grandparents had horses rather than a tractor until the 1970s,” he recalls. “We still have all their horse-drawn equipment – haying tools, mowers, and plows – and the barn where Barney and Chub lived, the two Belgian draft horses.”
It was the mid 1970s when blueberries first bloomed on the land. Gilman’s father, James Gilman, retired from the army and moved the family back to the farm more permanently. Soon he started converting hay fields into a blueberry orchard.
“I helped during breaks from school, and we put in about 9,000 high bush blueberry plants on 8 acres,” Gilman says. “I’d say about 8,000 or so remain, with 15 varieties that flower and become ripe at different times.”
Having multiple varieties with staggered life cycles ensures a smooth and steady harvest throughout July and August. It also provides some insurance against extreme weather.
“If all your bushes flowered at the same time and you got a hard frost, like we did this May, that could wipe you out,” says Gilman. “In our case, we only lost a few sections of early varieties.”
Gilman’s father ran the orchard into his 80s before leasing the operation to other farmers. For a few years, lax maintenance allowed weeds to take hold and production to drop.
When his father passed in 2015, Gilman himself took over and started bringing the orchard back into shape. That became a bit easier last year when he retired after 51 years as a trial lawyer. Now his hard work is visibly bearing fruit.
“Even with the frost, this year has been a very good year for our blueberries,” he says. “We’re seeing maybe one and a half times the yield we saw last year. It’s been warm, we’ve had regular rain, and since we’re on a mountaintop, we don’t need to worry about flooding.”
Kelso Homestead Blueberries sells their berries two ways: through pick-your-own and by wholesaling to large produce markets, usually in Boston, MA, or Hartford, CT.
“Pick-your-own is an adventure,” says Gilman, setting the scene. “`You drive up the hill to our historic farm, turn left up the driveway past some barns, and arrive at an old apple orchard. The blueberries lay to the north beyond that.”
“We give you a bucket and direct you where the picking is good, with maps and signs so no one gets lost,” he continues. “You pick to your heart’s content, come back to weigh what you have, and pay whatever the market rate is – usually about $3 per pound.”
Kelso Homestead Blueberries’ Facebook page is updated regularly with picking hours – typically 8:30am to 2pm daily – and notices if bad weather or field work force them to close for a day.
For those that would rather be paid to pick blueberries, there’s an option for that too. After all, those berries sold to Boston and Hartford don’t just float off the bushes.
“We call it market pick,” says Gilman. “People come pick-for-pay and we box them into cases of twelve pints for wholesale.”
For this and other orchard maintenance, Kelso Homestead Blueberries has long relied on an informal workforce of community members.
“Historically we’ve had a bunch of neighborhood kids work with us,” Gilman says. “Nowadays it’s more difficult to find people who will work outdoors. Increasingly were hiring people from foreign countries who grew up closer to the land, including many folks from the Ukrainian community.”
While harvest season is the busiest, there’s work to be done all year.
Come fall they spread woodchips around the base of each plant. This natural mulch blocks weeds and acts as a slow-release fertilizer, acidifying the soil while beneficial fungi break it down and release more nutrients.”Blueberry plants have a shallow crown or root system,” explains Gilman, “which is why we’re always adding material to the surface.”
Next comes pruning, during colder months when bushes are dormant. Pruners inspect each bush’s canes, or what otherwise might be called branches, removing some to encourage new growth. Canes between 2 and 4 years old tend to yield the most berries, so a good pruner will remove older canes while leaving young ones of staggered ages to take their place.
Battling weeds is a year-round practice, usually by mowing or ripping them out. Tenacious Oriental Bittersweet vines are Gilman’s particular foe.
Maintaining everything is hard work, but it’s a labor of love, and the rewards are sweet. As sweet as Gilman’s favorite use for fresh blueberries.
“Deep dish blueberry cobbler – and it’s gotta be hot, right out of the oven – with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top,” he shares. “It’s hard to beat that.”
Lest you want for other ideas, “my mother gathered up our family’s historic blueberry recipes and made a pamphlet we hand out to people,” he adds.
It’s July. Heed the call of the berries.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at CISA. To see more pick-your-own berry farms near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.