There are multiple U-Pick blueberry farms spread across the Sky Valley, and now is the best time to scoop them up.
There are multiple U-Pick blueberry farms spread across the Sky Valley, and now is the best time to scoop them up.

Lori Johnson reports her blueberry yield this year was exceptional. In fact, it was more than the 20-year-old bushes have ever produced.

By early July the thin branches were drooping with so many berries they looked more like weighted grapevines. Johnson said she doesn’t know what contributed to the higher crop yield. Her only guess is that the annual practice to pray over the fields may have paid off this year.

“It defies description, it was so huge,” she said.

Johnson and her husband run one of many local blueberry operations in the Sky Valley area. The couple sells their crop to customers who get to pick the berries themselves.

Washington is one of the top blueberry producers in the country, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Roughly 553,720 pounds were produced nationwide in 2014, with 96,100 pounds coming from Washington.

Johnson said she and her husband selected the fruit after some research. Raspberries seemed too risky for the area, which floods almost every year; the roots don’t like to get wet, she said.

Blueberries seemed to be the best option, Johnson said. She said the limbs take some regular pruning, and encroaching blackberry bushes need to be fended off each spring, but once rooted in the ground they can stay put for decades.

“They grow forever if you prune them right — they are not something you have to replant,” she said.

Aside from invasive blackberries, the Johnsons have seen their fair share of challenges. Chunks of the crop have been lost to birds that descend on the fields in the hundreds. The couple tried various methods of scaring them away. After nothing else worked, they finally gave in and recently purchased expensive netting, she said.

They also had trouble one year with a fungus that infects the fruit, and causes it to drop to the ground withered and dead.

“There is always going to be something in farming,” Johnson said.

About 55 percent of the blueberries produced in Washington are grown in the western part of the state, according to the Washington Blueberry Commission. Roughly 20 percent is brought up organically. A quarter of the annual yield is sold fresh, and the remainder is processed. 

Jay and Jane McGough found a few remedies of their own for the two common torments of blueberry farmers. For the birds, Jay discovered large balloons being sold online that have oval markings made to resemble the eyes of predators.

The owners of the Woods Creek Blueberry Farm in northeast Monroe say the approach has worked for the past four years. Jay McGough said he puts them up at the start of the season. That keeps the birds from getting accustomed to the inflatable deterrents prior to when they start feasting.

The McGough’s purchased their property 11 years ago. The bushes were first planted in the 1930s by a family that once also owned many of the surrounding acres. Blueberries now grow on only a couple of those, Jane McGough said.

The couple use a U-Pick honor system. They allow customers to come by any time to bag a haul. Buckets and a scale are left for customers outside a shed at the end of the driveway. Some represent families that have come to pick on the property for generations, Jane McGough said.

Other than mummy berry, the McGough’s say they see few recurring problems. To combat the blight, Jay McGough said he found the trick is to keep the area under the bushes inhospitable, so the fungus can’t flare up and proliferate again the following spring.

“If you want nice berries, you have to prune, and you have to keep the ground clean,” he said.

The couple never planned to farm blueberries. Once they bought the home, they had neighbors coming by to ask that the operation be kept open. It took a few years, they said, but they finally got the hang of being business owners and farmers.

Both the McGoughs and Johnsons can’t live entirely off the revenue from their blueberry farms. The McGoughs say it helps cover other costs, such as feeding the livestock.

Lori Johnson said hers helped put her three kids through college.

She said she fears family farms are dying. Her own operation has provided a place for her children to learn first-hand business skills, and where relatives can come help out and make some extra money.

Jay and Jane McGough go out and graze in their fields almost every day. More often than not their two dogs will join, and usually out eat them. Jay McGough said both pets are put on a diet once the season starts because of how many they will consume. Johnson, however, said she doesn’t like blueberries much.

Albert Bahnmiller, who runs the Bahmiller Berry Farm with his wife Christine, sells some of their product commercially. Their roughly 2,800 bushes are a few decades olds. Their three acres are covered by five varieties, including Early Blue, Elliot, Berkeley, Blueray and Duke.

Bahnmiller is a second-generation farmer, and says the third generation may not take over the business.

He said he braves the slugs, birds and occasional lack of available laborers each year because he likes to eat the product he chose to grow.

“We do, we eat our share of blueberries,” he said.

There is no big payoff for the fruit, Bahnmiller said. He said he can actually buy frozen blueberries for less than what it costs to produce them himself. When asked why he continues to grow them year after year, he laughed.

“I have no idea — I guess we are crazy,” he said.