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Blueberrying, Blackstone Valley

by Jacleen Charbonneau

Nothing represents New England's sunny season more than fresh blueberry picking at some of the finest local farms. And luckily, two local businesses in the Blackstone Valley are offering this luxury. Take Mendon's Christmas tree farm, Vandervalk Farm and Winery, for example. Although owners Casey and Sue Vandervalk have sold thousands of Christmas trees for the last 30 winters, the couple has expanded their business to the summer season, dedicating a section of their farm to blueberries.

 "We got into blueberries because we had a patch that was underutilized, so we thought blueberries would be a good thing to use," says Mr. Vandervalk, who also grows raspberries and grapes- not as a Pick-Your-Own option, but for jellies and jams.

 Although the PYO option for blueberries is only available on certain days, the Vandervalks regularly update information regarding which days it will be available on their Facebook page, website, or by sending out emails to those on their email list. "We typically are open one to two days a week, depending on how many blueberries we have," informs Vandervalk. "It's typically a Saturday."

 On the days PYO is available, guests are in for a treat. For about four dollars per pound, fresh blueberries are available literally at one's fingertips. And with a goal of incorporating eco-friendly practices into his work, Vandervalk tries to refrain from spraying the fruit, a healthy route for those who consume them. Using a system called Integrated Pest Management, which involves a hands-on scout for bugs, Vandervalk judges accordingly if spraying is absolutely necessary. Additionally, instead of standard electricity, the fruit farmer uses solar energy power, which converts sunlight into usable energy through the use of solar panels. With this abundance of energy, Vandervalk even powers a winery located in his basement, which gives use to the season's leftover blueberries.

 "We have these big basks, which is what we call the primary fermenter. We put the blueberries in there, [plus] a little water and little extra sugar, because blueberries aren't sweet enough to make wine all by themselves," explains Vandervalk. After adding additional ingredients, including yeast, the wine is then fermented and racked, later sold at local farmers markets. And due to the popularity of the wine, the farm owner has begun experimenting beyond blueberries, such as peaches and cranberries.

 Guests are encouraged to join the farm's Facebook page to look out for open houses: "We do open houses once in a while, where we will do a winery tour...wagon rides...duck races, and a fire circle where people can roast marshmallows," finishes Vandervalk.

 For those who are interested in picking blueberries at a farm with regular business hours, Sunburst Farm in Uxbridge offers a variety of blueberries in a one-acre field. Planting the bushes in 2006, owners William and Deborah Baisley opened for business in 2009, many years after Mrs. Baisley had the idea for starting the farm.

 "We bought the property over 30 years ago. We each had careers [and] we had a family. We figured this was a retirement project," says Deborah Baisley.  Offering 900 bushes with seven varieties of blueberries, the Baisleys grow each one using a drip irrigation system, and also refrain from the use of pesticides. Additionally, with a large variety of blueberries to choose from, fruit pickers are able to choose according to preferences, even stocking up for the season at early morning hours.

"We open at seven, but if someone was really gung-ho and called us, we'd let them come in even earlier," says Deborah Baisley. "It's the best time to pick in the morning... It's cool and quiet."

Sunburst Farm offers blueberries a bit over three dollars per pound, and will be open Tuesdays through Fridays from 7:00 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. until mid-August. However, all year long, the farm will encourage those interested in subjects like blueberry growing techniques to learn more by visiting The Massachusetts Cultivated Blueberry Growers Association website (mcbga.org), where William Baisley holds title as President. "[At MCBGA], we get together to discuss problems, [like] pests. It's just a good way to network," finishes Deborah Baisley.