A relatively new crop for local farms, blueberries are a summertime treat
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
At Serendipity Farms we have an acre of highbush organic blueberries tucked away in a warm microclimate of Watsonville. Eight delicious varieties ripen over a 12-week period, bringing a luxurious abundance of tasty, antioxidant-rich fruit that is one of the healthiest on the planet. It is my family’s favorite time of year, and mine, too, as it reminds me of one of the things I appreciate most about farming: Life is very rich when you have access to the freshest, best-tasting fruits and vegetables and the opportunity to share them with the community. And as a farmer, blueberry season also represents the end of winter and “lean” times, which is always worth celebrating!
Blueberries (Cyanococcus vaccinium) are a perennial related to cranberries and huckleberries. They originated from wild bushes that were foraged extensively by both Native Americans and early settlers in North America, who found them growing in peat bogs and acidic glacial soils. They were eaten fresh, but also dried in the sun to be saved and used later for medicine, or made into puddings, cakes and most notably, pemmican—a satiating blend of berries, dried meats and fat that could be eaten on long journeys or used as a soup base. It wasn’t until 1893 that Elizabeth White—the daughter of a New Jersey cranberry grower—teamed up with botanist Frederick Covelle to domesticate them and breed the most delicious, largest wild blueberry plants. In 1932, White was awarded for her outstanding contributions to agriculture for developing the first commercial lowbush varieties. In the 1930s, highbush varieties were first developed and planted in Europe, which enabled areas with mild winters and low chill hours to grow blueberries, too.
Highbush blueberries, like their name suggests, are much taller and more elongated than the lowbush type. There are also differences in the fruit. Some highbush varieties have enormous fruit, up to the size of a nickel, while wild or lowbush varieties typically grown on the East Coast, or in Oregon and Washington are much smaller. While I haven’t tried a true wild blueberry, I enjoy the highbush varieties for their size: Bigger berries mean a larger surface area and with that, juicier fruit and less skin texture. However, wild or lowbush varieties are best for baking as they don’t fall apart in the batter and they contain less water, resulting in an intense, sweet flavor.
Around the year 2000, Southern California began to experiment with growing blueberries, opening up an early market for the California crop. UC Santa Cruz had a big part in variety trials and found the plants that are best suited to our area are Southmoon, Santa Fe, O’Neal and Sapphire. Five years later blueberries were first planted commercially on the Central Coast. Currently, only 50 acres of blueberries are grown in Santa Cruz County and 111 acres in Monterey County, far behind the leading cash crops of strawberries, raspberries and wine grapes, but consumers love them. High Ground Organics of Watsonville grows blueberries for its CSA customers; both Vasquez Farm in Watsonville and Ridgecrest Farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains cultivate blueberries for sale at local farmers’ markets. Coastal Moon Berry Farms in Watsonville is experimenting with hydroponically grown blueberries, using substrate instead of soil, which greatly reduces weed pressure and allows plants to be given the exact dose of nutrients they need. Our patch of organic, soil-grown blueberries yields between 5,000 and 9,000 lbs. per acre, while an average conventional yield is 7,000 lbs.
Healthful and delicious harvest: the author with her blueberries
Since wild blueberries originated in acidic soils, it is necessary to replicate the environment if the plant is to thrive. The pH of the soil needs to be 4.5–5.5, much lower than most soils in this area. To acidify the soil organically, mulching with pine needles, shavings and bark will help as they break down over time; however, adding sulfur to a new planting is key. Citric acid and vinegar in the drip lines help maintain the low pH levels and double as a way to clean out fertilizer residue from fish or kelp that may gunk up drip lines. Yellowing leaves in blueberries are typically a sign that the pH is too alkaline.
Two-year-old plants are typically planted 3–5 feet apart in rows that are 8–10 feet wide. Roots are shallow, so watering regularly for a short amount of time is preferred. Mulch helps keep the roots moist and the weeds in check, while good drainage is important for the roots to breathe. Although it is tempting to leave the early blooms, they should be pinched back for the first two years to increase vegetative growth and establish a nice bush. It takes 5-plus years to reap a substantial crop, and eight to 10 years to produce heavily. Blueberry plants will live 40–50 years and will need to be pruned annually to keep fruit production high. We prune right after harvest in August so the plants have a chance to regenerate and produce a smaller, late crop in the fall or early winter. Blueberries fruit on one-year-old wood, or last year’s growth, so focusing on keeping the bush open to allow in airflow and sunlight improves the next season’s fruit set.
Birds are the biggest problem with blueberries, so netting is a must. I suggest putting up poles and netting the entire area instead of just netting the plants, which is cumbersome to remove when you need to prune or harvest. In the Monterey Bay area, a fruit fly called Drosophila that is a common issue in strawberries is slowly making its way into blueberry crops. The damage comes from the fly laying eggs in the fruit, causing the fruit to rot, which is devastating but usually not noticed until days after harvest. Keeping fields clean of over-ripe fruit is key, as that is what attracts the flies.
HARVESTING, STORING, ENJOYING
When harvesting blueberries, the ripe ones must be picked without disturbing the unripe ones, so it is no surprise that women tend to make the best blueberry harvesters, due to their attention to detail and small fingers. It is painstaking work; at the height of the season, when bushes are loaded with larger berries, one worker can only pick about 80 pounds of blueberries in a 10-hour shift, or about eight pounds per hour. This, along with the short season and eight years of caring for the plants required before a decent-sized crop comes in, goes a long way towards explaining the high price of blueberries!
At the market, look for firm berries with a natural, powdery “epicuticular” wax—this shows that the berries are freshly picked and have had very little handling. Store unwashed blueberries in a container in the refrigerator and wash them right before eating. Fresh blueberries should last at least a week in the refrigerator.
I’m a big fan of adding blueberries to savory dishes such as salads and meat dishes for that added sweetness. For my partner’s birthday I made ginger cole slaw and pulled pork sliders with homemade blueberry barbecue sauce on Hawaiian sweet rolls that was off the charts. I’ve also added blueberries to ground turkey burgers, along with chopped spinach and some Gorgonzola cheese.
Of course, blueberries are also perfect for power bowls, smoothies and ice cream, as well as all varieties of pies, cakes and pastries. Enjoy this fleeting summertime treat!
Jamie Collins is the owner of Serendipity Farms. You can find Serendipity’s blueberries and seasonal, fresh blueberry vinaigrette through July at all of the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets (downtown, Westside, Live Oak, Felton and Scotts Valley) and at the Pacific Grove farmers’ market on Mondays.
How to not go the extra mile!
Serving anywhere from 500–5,000 meals every day, you might expect executive chef Danny Abbruzzese of Portola Hotel & Spa to go any distance to procure his ingredients. But not Abbruzzese.
In keeping with the LEED-certified Portola’s hotel-wide commitment to sustainability, Abbruzzese is totally devoted when it comes to using ingredients produced sustainably in the surrounding area. It would be easier to dial up massive orders of whatever he wants from around the country, but instead he chooses to obtain as much of his produce, meats, fish, cheeses, honey and other ingredients as he can from within a mere 50-mile radius of his downtown Monterey location.
Abbruzzese shared with Edible Monterey Bay a spreadsheet that tracks his ingredients and their travel distances, and it’s an impressive list, lined with the names of beloved small local farms, including San Juan Bautista’s Coke Farm, which also acts as a distributor for 40–60 other organic producers in the region. Certain meats and goat cheese are among the only products that Abbruzzese exceeds his self-imposed limit to buy, but not by much.
“It’s a partnership. I’m using what they have available and I’m being understanding of their schedule.”
“It’s a partnership. I’m using what they have available and I’m being understanding of their schedule,” Abbruzzese says of his relationship with his local producers.
And of course using local products requires sticking to only what’s in season right here, so when it comes to planning his world culture-influenced cuisine, seasonality is “everything,” Abbruzzese says: In additional to twice-annual overhauls in spring and fall, the chef is continually tweaking his menus at Jacks Monterey, Peter B’s and the many special events the Portola hosts to feature new fruits and vegetables as they reach their peak of season. For example, as this magazine was going to press, Abbruzzese was getting ready to offer new summer dishes such as heirloom tomato bisque, scallops with sweet corn and wild mushrooms, and halibut with a succotash made from locally grown legumes such as fava beans, English peas and cranberry beans—depending on what will be available.
Importantly for a chef like Abbruzzese, emphasizing what’s in season brings the huge benefit of cooking with produce that is at both its height of flavor and lowest price. But being flexible is key, he says.
“It’s all about communication,” Abbruzzese notes. “A lot of times things aren’t going to come out of the ground [due to weather or other factors beyond his farmers’ control], so you have to be nimble about what you’re serving at times.” When it comes to blueberries, the subject of our seasonal feature beginning on p. 18, Abbruzzese says he sources them locally through Coke Farm when he can, and loves the fruit’s flavor and versatility. He served them with wild game dishes when he was a chef in Colorado, but currently at the Portola, he’s happy to leave their preparation to pastry chef Marcos Jubane, whose recipes accompany this story.
“I have a sweet tooth,” Abbruzzese says. “I like to hang out in the bakery.”
Blueberry Scones and Collins’ Blueberry Barbecue Sauce
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
JUNE, JULY AND AUGUST
*Apples • ****Apricots • Avocados • Blackberries • ****Blueberries • *Boysenberries • Cactus Pears • **Cherries • Figs • ***Grapes • Lemons • **Loquats • ***Melons • Nectarines • Olallieberries • Oranges • Peaches • ***Pears • Plums • Raspberries • Strawberries • Tayberries
**Artichokes • Arugula • **Asparagus • Basil • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Corn • Cress • Cucumber • Dandelion • Eggplant • Endive • Fava Beans • Fennel • Garlic • Green Beans • Kale • Leeks • Lettuces • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Onions • Pea greens • Peas • ***Peppers, Bell • Potatoes • Radishes • Spinach • Summer Squash • Tomatoes • Turnips
Abalone • Crab, Dungeness • Halibut, California • Lingcod • Rock Cod (aka Snapper, Rockfish) • Sablefish (aka Black Cod) • Salmon, Chinook/King • Seabass, White • Squid, Market Sole (Dover, Petrale) • Spot Prawns • Tuna (Albacore)
*Comes into season in June
**Ends in June
***Comes into season in July
****Comes into season in August
*****Goes out of season in July
Notes: No notation on fruits and vegetables means the crop is available throughout June, July and August.
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and are found in abundance in local waters. See www.seafoodwatch.org for more information. Research assistance provided by Real Good Fish and Serendipity Farms
Jamie Collins is the owner of Serendipity Farms and has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley since 2001. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.