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He Found His Love on Blueberry Hill

Daily Gullet Staff

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1206415101/gallery_29805_1195_36988.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">The Daily Gullet is proud to present an excerpt from American Artisanal: Finding the Country's Best Real Food, from Cheese to Chocolate by Rebecca Gray.

I was in college in Boston when my dad first mentioned he was thinking of buying a blueberry farm in Michigan, some twenty-seven acres of high-bush blueberries just south on the Blue Star highway, and a few miles west, between South Haven and Kalamazoo -- and not far from Lake Michigan, where I'd spent every summer of my life.

Michigan is renowned for its fruit -- cherries, peaches, pear, apples, and it even has a modest grape-wine industry. And this particular southwestern corner of the state, with its sandy, acidic soil, abounds in good small blueberry farms. Many are U-pick operations, some machine-pick berries for processed foods such as pies, blueberry jam, fruit "leather," or tarts and cookies, and some combine processed berries with the fresh-pack business of distributing pints of blueberries to grocery stores. It is an area used to employing migrant workers, but it also has a sprinkling of towns -- long-ago stops on the Civil War's underground railroad -- that are populated by the descendents of runaway slaves, folks who for generations have made their living either as small truck farmers or field hands picking the crop of the season. Then fringing the fruit farms and hugging the beaches of the Big Lake is a strip of resort towns and second homes -- summer refuges for city-dwellers from Chicago.

It was probably there, at our summer house in Douglas, that as a little girl I first ate the best blueberries imaginable: Michigan blueberries. Big, fresh, and flavorful, sweet, but never with the sweetness of over-ripeness, my preference was to eat them with a splash of heavy cream. It was one of the eating pleasures my father and I shared. (Although now I note he's switched to combining blueberries with soft vanilla ice cream.) So I wasn't unhappy when he decided to buy Blueberry Hill Farm, maybe just a little surprised.

Lou Crawford's expertise and experience in food technology is significant: an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Princeton, an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago; seventeen years of working for the family business in Chicago making meatpacking machinery. Then later he started a consulting business that took him to over a hundred countries -- sometimes living away from home for months at a time -- designing, building, surveying, and updating food-processing (primarily meatpacking) plants. Handsome, this daughter would call him, tall and brown-haired with truly green eyes and a ruddy complexion. I can't remember when he didn't wear a hat -- back then it was a Stetson -- and he completed the outfit with cowboy boots, wearing in his world travels what he knew to be immediately identifiable as American. He'd worked for the UN in Nigeria and the largest hot-dog/bologna maker in Colombia, but he wanted a more stable source of income, not so up and down as the meat-processing business. He also was looking for something to take him into retirement that didn't require such extensive traveling. "I don't want to die in some hotel room in a foreign country," he always said.

Admittedly, your dentist isn't usually the instigator of a life-changing event. Equally, it might also be difficult to see how blueberries could much affect you, except perhaps by causing a temporary blue stain on your teeth. But my dad is an unusual character, and odd things happen to him. Why not be influenced by a dentist from Chicago who wanted a new occupation as he, too, moved toward his own retirement? I can only imagine that first discussion in 1968:

"Ever think about what you're going to do when you retire, Lou?" the dentist probably said.

"Uv csi du," my dad would have responded.

"Yes, me, too. I've been thinking about buying a citrus farm. I understand they can be very lucrative," the dentist must have said.

"Iwodnt lvinflda, idrdrtkabt Mishgan," Daddy surely retorted.

"You're right, Michigan would be a better place to retire to, but what crop grows in Michigan and makes money? Rinse, please."

Spit. "Blueberries."

Maybe it didn't go exactly like that, but I do know a barter arrangement was made between Lou Crawford and his dentist: free dental work for a study of what was truly the best crop to produce in Michigan. Lou examined peach, pear, and cherry farming, but it was blueberries that seemed the most viable; wonderfully plump, sweet blueberries that, as my dad has come to say, are so "perfectly packaged."

Blueberries, a shrub of the genus Vaccinium, are one of the few fruits truly native to North America. Blueberries were held in the highest regard by Native Americans who believed that because the blossom end of each berry, the calyx, forms the shape of a perfect five-point star, the berries came from the Great Spirit -- the Northeast tribes called them star berries -- and were sent to relieve hunger in times of famine. Parts of the blueberry plant were used as medicine -- the leaves made a tea that was good for the blood, and blueberry juice was a cough treatment -- as well as a dye for baskets and clothing. Dried blueberries were added to stews and soup and even crushed and used as a rub for meats. The nutritional value and health benefits of blueberries -- as with so many plants popular with the early Native Americans -- are exceptional. A good source of fiber and high in vitamin C, blueberries -- one of the few naturally blue foods -- recently have been found to be a great source of antioxidants, those vitamins and minerals that may help increase immune function and possibly decrease the risk of infection and cancer. The colonists, too, understood some of the nutritional value of wild blueberries, gathering them and drying them for winter use. And later, blueberries, in the form of a beverage, were an important staple for Civil War soldiers. In the 1880s, the first blueberry "businesses" were born, with wild-blueberry canneries developing in several areas of the Northeast.

But in 1911, Elizabeth White, one of a New Jersey cranberry grower's four daughters, changed everything about the business of blueberries when she decided to attempt their cultivation. In a taped interview in 1953,White recalled, "Father and I had talked about the possibility of adding blueberries to our cranberry crop . . . but we didn't know how to propagate the plant. At the time it was said among the farmers of New Jersey that blueberries could not be cultivated."Then White read a USDA publication by Dr. Frederick V. Colville entitled Experiments in Blueberry Culture and she immediately wrote to Colville and suggested a collaboration. He brought the scientific knowledge; she had the "laboratory" for solving the problems of blueberry cultivation. She asked the local group of "pineys" -- a reclusive southern New Jersey community of people connected culturally to Appalachians and known for their great hunting and foraging abilities -- to go into the woods to find wild blueberry bushes bearing large berries. They dug the bushes up and transported them back to the Whites' farm. It took five years, but finally the inaugural shipment of commercially produced, cultivated highbush berries was sold in 1916. The selection and breeding process continued in New Jersey, with Colville developing the original varieties know as the "big six": Earliblue, Blueray, Bluecrop, Berkeley, Herbert, and Colville. Several of the varieties were named after the "pineys" who first found the wild shrub ancestor and brought it to the Whites' farm. (There's also a cultivated, although often referred to as "wild," blueberry that is a low-bush variety. These shrubs are six to eighteen inches tall -- versus four to ten feet tall for high-bush -- and have a tiny, more tart berry. The drawbacks of the low-bush variety are that the berries ripen at just one time of year and have a much lower yield per bush.) Today the United States produces 90 percent of the world's blueberries. High-bush berries now come in multiple varieties and grow in thirty-eight states and provinces, most significantly in Michigan, New Jersey, Maine, Washington, Oregon, New York, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and British Columbia. And international growers in general, and specifically in Central and South America, are increasing too.

After New Jersey, Michigan became the next state to enter the commercial blueberry business, in the 1930s. The Michigan Blueberry Growers Association, a marketing cooperative that grades the berries and distributes them, was started in 1936 by thirteen Michigan growers.Today the state leads the country in blueberry production, with 32 percent of the market share. My dad credits the association with first helping him learn the blueberry- farming business and then freeing him of the marketing responsibilities. In 2000 MBG combined forces with two other berry companies -- Nutripe of California and Hortifrut, the largest bush-berry grower and shipper in Chile, Mexico, and Spain -- to form a marketing company called Global Berry Farms. This has made it possible to provide customers yearround access to fresh ripe berries that are consistently good. Like most commodities, the wholesale price changes from year to year, and with blueberries even week to week, depending on the crop's availability. The fresh-pick wholesale (about 50 percent of the market) range in recent years has been as low as $1.05 a pound in 2001 and as high as $1.73 in 2004 Happily, there's been a constantly expanding appetite for blueberries primarily because of their versatility, convenience (no peeling or pitting), and health benefits -- now they come in the form of everything from beer to vinegar, syrup to salsa. The increasing market demand -- the annual per-capita consumption of blueberries in the United States is approaching a pound per person -- coupled with years of improved growing and irrigation techniques, globalization, and increasing volume leaves little doubt that blueberries can be a very lucrative business.

My father's dentist decided to forgo a new life with berries and in a rather impetuous move left his wife and family and went to Mexico to open a practice in orthodontics. My dad, meanwhile, had researched, initially through publications and trade organizations, the business of blueberry farming. Next he met with one of Michigan's biggest blueberry farmers. The son of a horticulturist, the grower showed up in a Cadillac. Although the guy didn't quite say that his expensive car was the result of his successful blueberry business, its presence didn't hurt, and probably helped convince my dad of the potential in blueberry farming.He saw an ad in a trade magazine for a farm near South Haven and bought Blueberry Hill in 1971

It was to be the beginning of Lou's great love affair. "I remember that first spring, the smell of the small pinkish white, bell-shaped flowers -- no bigger than a thumbnail -- on the blueberry bushes. I'd spent my entire career in and out of slaughter houses, around death, and now I was standing in a field of flowering bushes watching the bees pollinate and awaiting growth of the beautiful blue berries. And it was home to so much wildlife; it was full of life. I fell in love with blueberries."

Lou came to the farm with two attributes of a farmer: a penchant for philosophizing and complete optimism. Both characteristics proved indispensable, as those initial years were fraught with bad luck and difficulties. During that first spring of 1972 there was a disastrous freeze (although Daddy chooses to recall that spring as when his blueberry love affair began) and nearly his entire blueberry crop was lost. But the following year was considerably better: the producing bushes brought in 137,000 pounds of blueberries -- but that was a bit of an aberration. The next five years saw generally low total weights, dipping in 1977 to just 38,000 pounds. Then in 1979 Lou had a blueberry boom, 193,000 pounds -- though of course the price wasn't very high.

But Dad's an optimist and so he bought additional acreage, an old pine farm, and planted Elliots and Bluecrop on it. By 1981 the nursery bushes he'd planted on the Blueberry Hill Farm in the early years were mature, and he brought into production an additional twenty acres of bushes. Things looked good -- well, except for the big drought that year. A different person might have been disheartened, and even an optimistic person might have felt a bit discouraged. But no, something had happened; there was something about farming, about blueberries and the whole cyclical process, that had inspired passion within my father.

Like so many small farms, over the years a series of family members spent time and got involved on a variety of levels with the farm. My brother worked there during summers with a series of college friends, my sister's husband helped out during one picking season, and then later one of their teenage sons worked grabbing lugs off the back of the picker. I was out east and had but fleeting encounters with the business of blueberry farming, a small memory here and there. I remember when we took our children, all quite young, to the farm to see the berries on the bushes and pick a few for the morning's blueberry pancakes. I had difficulty convincing the kids to put the sweet, perfectly ripe berries into their buckets. It seemed that for every one in the bucket, three went into a mouth, then five for the mouth, and finally nothing for the bucket and handfuls for the mouth. In short order our daughter Hope's pink cheeks had succumbed to a lovely -- although messy -- blue hue.

Most of my association with the farm was to search in my New Hampshire grocery store for the Grand Junction, Michigan, label and report back to my father how much I'd paid for his blueberries. (I was never exactly sure why he needed this information. But it was always fun to imagine that the berries might have come from my dad's farm.) What the farm really gave me was my first real understanding of the need to be connected to what we eat, and the pleasure of that connection. And I learned from the Michigan farm about terroir, the importance of a sense of place and those range of local influences -- water, air, soil, weather, geography -- that transmit themselves to a food and create its character and goodness. I became convinced that if a bowl of blueberries tasted wondrous and special, of sweet summer sun, I didn't need a label to tell me they were from Michigan. Certainly I'm partial: I grew up on Michigan blueberries! Perhaps that's part of the concept of terroir. And of course my blueberry-farming father confirms that Michigan blueberries taste superior to others because of the generations of experience, the "good eye," intuitive agricultural sense, and TLC of the Michigan farmers -- not to mention ideal soil and weather conditions -- that all contribute to making the Michigan berries extraordinary.

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Rebecca Gray has written for such publications as Saveur, Town & Country, and Attaché. She is the author of seven cookbooks and served as an editor for the new edition of The Joy of Cooking.

Excerpted from American Artisanal: Finding the Country's Best Real Food, from Cheese to Chocolate by Rebecca Gray, copyright © 2008. Reprinted with permission by Rizzoli and the author.

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Since the author refered to the Michigan wine industry:Paul Lukacs considers the L. Mawby Talismon Brut to be one of the 40 best wines in the country :cool:

"As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex.Except for salami and eggs...Now that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced"--Alan King (1927-2004)

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