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As a Hancock County businessman/farmer, Tom Taylor has talked with a lot of people who have worked in commercial blueberry plants. “The people who pick out [clean] the berries work in coats because [the berries] are frozen by the time they pick them out. I haven’t heard any good tales from people who worked in a commercial factory. All they can say is that they never want to see a blueberry again in their lives.” Working in a blueberry factory doesn’t sound like a job that could ever be called “fun.” “It’s really unfortunate,” says Tom, “because the way we do business, it’s fun! It’s not overly fatiguing, hardly even breaks the sweat.”
At Gramp’s Farm Organic Wild Maine Blueberries in Orland, Tom and his wife, Holly Taylor-Lash, with the part-time help of teenage neighbors, harvest, clean, pack and ship five or six thousand pounds of quality blueberries in an average summer. Last summer’s harvest was cut in half by the drought. The team works not in a cold warehouse but in a sunlit small building behind the farmhouse that’s been in Holly’s family for several generations. From a lug that’s just come in from the field, one person pours blueberries into a hopper at the top of the winnowing machine, then joins a partner on the picking line. Clean, beautiful berries are soon rolling off the belt into a tray at the end. A third person gently packs them into pint and quart boxes already arranged in 12-box containers for delivery to nearby customers. They chat amiably, sharing the latest blueberry news, planning the day’s or tomorrow’s work, teasing and joking.
Custom Tailored Harvesting
The usually tiresome work of sorting and cleaning blueberries is made faster and easier at Gramp’s Farm by starting right in the field. All their berries come from two 8-acre fields, one right behind the house, the other directly across Route 15, a two-minute walk from home. Holly was raking there last July. Taking obvious pleasure in her surroundings and the job before her, she explained their harvesting system. “This whole field is a collage of different kinds of blueberries, different varieties. Some are black, some are blue, some silver, some on high bushes, some on low bushes. Some are sweet, others a little tart. Every plant matures at a different time, like apples. You look at this kaleidoscope of berries and what you do depends on weather conditions, whether trees are shading them, whether they’re out in the direct sun, whether near a rock and warm up earlier in spring. We hunt for the patches that have the best production as early as possible to get a minimum amount of green. Harvesting the ones that ripen first gives you the optimum production out of the field.” It also adds to the appeal and the market value of the package when all the berries in a box are uniform in color, size and flavor.
“This right here is a fun patch,” Holly continues. “It’s called sourtop. If you’re in the commercial industry, you hate them because they’re very hard to rake and there are very few berries once you get done. But they’re the most beautiful plants in the field. There have been people interested in landscaping with blueberries. These are what I would suggest they use. The thing about sourtops is that they usually ripen later in the season. They don’t have the sweetness until then. In July they’re more tart and some people love that. We’ve found some that produce as late as the end of September. We leave them because they’re so pretty and at the end of the season, they’re good to have. Otherwise we’d be out. Taller patches we hand pick because they’re hard to rake. We rake everything at the end of the season. If they come off in clumps and stems, we put them into a different grade. We sell them to Fiddler’s Green to make their syrups, and to wine makers. They don’t have the same standards as somebody doing a gourmet dish.”
Holly and Tom do most of the raking themselves because they can harvest more efficiently, leaving others to work on the picking belt. They often rake to fill individual orders, sometimes just for pints or quarts. “We like to keep our pint quality higher than our quart quality because pints are usually for putting on cereals and toppings. Quarts are for baking. When I see larger berries I do them for pints,” Holly says.
Keeping them separate in the field speeds up the packing process and the quality control factor that’s key to their successful operation. Holly rakes a network of paths through the fields as the berries ripen through the season. “When I walk the paths later to see what berries have ripened, I’m not walking on them all the time, squishing them. The down side of that is that you have to walk a lot. It takes a lot of time.” Wild berries do not organize themselves into straight rows that can be marked off with string for rakers making a one-time, take-everything “clearcut,” so to speak. The patchwork of varieties is entirely the handiwork of nature, evolved over centuries. “We have little pockets of specific types, sourtops, silvers, powder-blues, blacks. The blacks are the sweetest.” Silver berries have softer skin, so they need to be sold right away. They tend not to have stems, so they can be sold as restaurant grade. “We’ve even put together a special package for a blueberry festival with little baskets of black, powder, slate, silver, for people to sample. We can do it for weddings and such.
“Different years the berries are in different conditions. Some years we have a lot of stems. I’m not sure why. This year it doesn’t seem to be a problem, but they’re very small. Every year’s a challenge and new and fun. You never know what’s next. It can’t ever get boring,” says Holly, her enthusiasm matching her husband’s.
Reaching a Diverse Market
Tom is filling an order for the Blue Hill Co-op. He puts each pint box on a scale before covering it with a plastic square, anchored with a rubber band and labeled. “Every single box we sell is weighed to be sure it meets the minimum,” he says. “Our labels have the weights right on them. Pints only weigh three-quarters of a pound. We allow an ounce for the weight of the box and the rubber band. We put in an extra ounce so we’re selling a 13-ounce package. In quart boxes, instead of a pound and a half, there’s an extra ounce. We want to make sure when somebody buys what they think is a pound and a half or three-quarters of a pound, they’re easily going to get that amount of berries.”
Everything they sell has a date on it. Properly packed berries stay fresh in a retail store for three days without refrigeration. “The merchant can look at the due date on them. Any berries that are left over after that date they are instructed to return to us for credit or cash. We don’t want old tired berries on the market.”
Gramp’s Farm blueberries go to the Blue Hill Co-op, John Edwards Market in Ellsworth and a few selected retail outlets and restaurants, as well wine and syrup makers. “It’s more of a supply issue than anything else,” Tom points out. “We approached Shop ‘n Save years ago about selling our products, but they didn’t give the local managers permission to buy locally. Now that they’ve done that, we’ve found enough other markets, so we no longer have anything to sell to them. Five years ago they could have had our berries.”
“You have to pick your markets,” Holly adds. “You can keep costs down for people [who don’t need quality] by not doing more work than you have to for those. But you can increase your profits by looking at markets where people prefer the higher quality.” Silvers, which are relatively stem free, often go to restaurants, which want quality berries. “Oddly, people send lower quality to restaurants because it’s more of a bulk type thing. We know that in a kitchen, time is of the essence. When they get a product, they want it washed, cleaned, ready to use.”
A lot of sales are made to people visiting in Maine. “I don’t know how they find us, but we’re listed on a couple of sites and through MOFGA,” says Tom. “They track us down and order, say, 10 pounds. We have what we call a six pack, which is 10 pounds, in a very robust, near bomb-proof box intended for air travel or car travel, not more than a couple of days. We also sell 5-pound bags. We have people ask us to fill a cooler. Last Sunday people who drove to Maine from Rhode Island for the weekend picked up 30 pounds on the way home. They brought their own cooler and we put six 5-pound bags of blueberries in it. A few years back a woman who went to a seminar in Bar Harbor literally gave us a suitcase and asked us to fill it. On the way to the airport she stopped and picked it up.” The blueberries were in bags, of course, not poured into the suitcase.
Mail order customers are another important outlet. A bulk order from a bakery in Massachusetts that morning was typical. It meant that Holly went right into the field and raked the necessary amount in short order. It can be challenging, she says. Depending on conditions, she can rake up to eight 8-pound lugs an hour. Generally mail order blueberries are hand picked to assure maximum quality, but since this order was for baking, store retail grade was acceptable. Packed in those “robust” boxes, the berries are shipped by priority mail. “It’s pretty fast and inexpensive,” Tom says. “FedEx and Airborne Express are expensive. If people really wanted overnight delivery we could do it, but it’s very costly. The berries are tough enough [to be fine after three days], even these raked berries. I’ve talked to some old timers who say during World War II they would pack berries in cardboard boxes and mail them. They didn’t think anything of it. Parcel post being what it was back then, it took a number of days. Blueberries are pretty hardy.”
Once packed for delivery, the blueberries are kept in a cool basement. “Fresh berries don’t sit here long, overnight at most if we rake late in the day. They go to customers the next morning. But we usually try to get everything we rake in a day out the same day,” Tom says.
Happy Customers, Better Returns
Meeting the diversity of customer demands and expectations keeps the creative energy and enjoyment level high for Holly and Tom. “Whatever they’re willing to pay for, we will reasonably accommodate them,” Tom says. “We had a contract last year with someone who asked if we could put up a hundred quarts of blueberries. The answer is always ‘Yes.’ All we had to do was figure was how and how much to charge. It turned out we could sell for five dollars a quart and we got a thousand dollars just for saying ‘Yes.’ We just had to figure out how to make it happen. That’s typical of small business. You look at it from the vantage point: ‘Can we make any money doing this? Can we reasonably accomplish this?’ Then we do it. We’re not Hannaford, but we don’t want to be them.”
Gramp’s Farm offers a scale of prices, ranging from the lowest for minimally winnowed berries for wine and syrup making to premium for berries packaged for the fresh market. Bulk shipments have their own pricing schedule. “Whatever people want, we will sell them,” says Tom. “If they want a lower grade, we tell them up front what they’re going to get. If they want premium, hand-picked berries, really nice ones, if they’re willing to pay the price we want, we’ll send them. A little negotiation is involved. We make the decision. We ask what we think is reasonable. We’ve had people turn us down because it’s a little too much. We understand and we don’t feel bad. We’ll send them to people we know where they might be able to get a better price, someone who’ll sell them field-winnowed berries for two bucks a quart. The get a lot of leaves and sticks, but if they have time to pick them out, it’s a good deal. They pay less, but what’s time worth? A lot of people here on vacation are very busy, have jobs, lives. They don’t want to spend time picking over blueberries. To them the extra two dollars is not a problem.” Tom will even tell people where they might find berries for free on wild land.
In blueberry country, where good fresh berries can be picked up at roadside stands or farmers’ markets for a reasonable price, Tom and Holly have developed a different market, focused on premium quality. “We’re much more picky on the belt, whether the berries have stems, or are soft,” Tom says. “A lot of people will allow so many soft berries, so many stems… Our standards are zero maggots. We work hard to get out stems and things. We really push to get a good product on the market.”
Tom and Holly also work to build personal relationships with all their customers. “My approach is, anybody can make the first sale. That’s a no-brainer. People will buy the first product. We live for the second, and third. People make a choice to buy a second time because they want to, because they know what they’re getting. Repeat customers are the real sign that you’re treating them fairly,” Tom says. “When I tell people you can make money selling blueberries, they say ‘You’re lying, there’s something going on, you’re doing something [suspicious].’ I say, ‘Yeah, we’re marketing at a completely different level.’”
Just as important to Tom and Holly as treating their customers fairly is treating their fellow growers by the same principle. They give a lot of credit to Ron and Carol Varin in Beddington. “They were so instrumental in getting us started. When we went out to sell our products after their help, we found out where they sold and we stayed as far away from those markets as we possibly could.”
Tom and Holly joined the Maine Organic Blueberry Co-op, which was a good place for beginners setting up their operation, Holly says. They could sell to one outlet without having to look for markets. Later, like other early co-op members, they developed their own customer list. The need to pool berries for large shipments out of state has diminished as most growers can sell their crops locally. Knowing your own market and what to expect from it is one of the advantages of running a small business, Tom says. “It’s kind of controlling your own destiny versus being subject to someone else.” Another important plus is that they don’t have to stop production and lose both money and berries, as often happens to growers who sell to commercial factories with a fluctuating production schedule.
Breaking with Tradition
“I’ve always loved blueberries,” says Holly, who grew up with them. “Tom is from out of state, so he’s got a little different view of them. He doesn’t take them for granted the way local people do. He said ‘You’ve got a wonderful resource here. Why don’t you do something with it.’ He was looking for value added things, to increase profits. Harvesting the way you normally do and selling berries to the factory, they don’t tell you what the price is going to be till after it’s harvested.” Tom is from Colorado, where he got his first degree, in engineering. He and Holly met in Switzerland, where he was on an engineering job and she was studying languages to become a flight attendant. When they settled in her home territory, Tom took the scientific approach, going to the University of Maine in Orono for a business degree. He learned a lot, he says, from an old-line marketing professor called Jacob Naor, who advised students to sell what is otherwise a commodity product by differentiating it from the generic.
“He told us to brand it, give it an image,” Tom says. “We decided we’d do that with Gramp’s Farm Organic Wild Maine Blueberries. When you hear the name Gramp’s Farm, you think of something other than Allen’s blueberry factory processing berries on an assembly line. We think. We hope!” That was the premise with which they started. “We did a number of things. First we put labels on every product we sell. We want the public to know what they’re buying, who they’re buying it from. We also want them to know how to get hold of us.”
The name came from Holly’s great-grandfather, John Roberts, who purchased the farm (built in 1788) in 1914. “He was the Gramp of Gramp’s Farm. My mother always called it Gramp’s Farm, so growing up we did, too. The family has been harvesting blueberries here since the mid-1930s,” Holly relates. “When my dad was alive, we tried to explain to him what we were doing [differently]. He never quite got the concept that if you were making four times as much money on the berries, you only needed to harvest a quarter of the field. He never understood that you don’t have to harvest every berry. We would do just a fraction of a field and make as much money on that as he did on the whole field the year before.” Last year, however, they were harvesting all of their fields and ran out of berries when the drought struck.
“It took us awhile to learn the plants, get the business going, earn the reputation. When we take our product to market now, it’s wonderful. Our whole day’s work can sell out in a matter of hours. It’s because our customers recognize the name and can count on our berries being consistent. That’s really what we’re working for.”
Engineering the Blueberry Business
Tom’s engineering background frequently figures in the operation. When they first started, he fixed an ancient winnower (now retired to a storage room) that they got from the Varins. Tom has made several adaptations on their present machine. A winnowing fan he concocted helped ease the labor-intensive work of picking out a ton of berries by hand their first year. “It was so romantic,” Holly recalls, laughing, “literally under the walnut tree, by moonlight. If it rained, we had to pick up the whole thing and put it in the garage. We were doing all our processing in the open air.”
“Engineers play with everything,” Tom confesses. “Everything is a toy, or something you can eat. Sometimes it’s the best of both worlds. I started playing with fruit leather about the time we were fussing with the business and that was actually our first product. We really weren’t into the fresh-packed business at first.” That was during the time he was studying at the university. He tried various formulas for making the sheets of dried berries that are cut into strips to make a healthy kind of candy. Starting out, he added sugars, maple syrup, honey, lime juice and other fruits. “Every time I’d get a brainstorm, I’d take it to class and try it out on my fellow students. The general consensus was to leave it alone. Just use straight blueberries. Everything else made it sticky or gave it an odd flavor.” He also makes strawberry fruit leather, buffered with blueberries to mellow it, and has tried adding cranberries. The leather is sold as Blueberry Stix in 5- and 10-ounce packages.
Blueberry Leather fits right into the Gramp’s Farm goal that every berry they harvest has a home. “We try to get the black ones for fruit leather,” Holly says. “They’re sweeter and they’re harder to market. People don’t want black blueberries, they want blue. Outdated berries returned by retailers also go into the fruit leather. The method for this value-added product is quite simple. Tom purees the berries and pours the puree onto plastic sheets. These are stacked on drying racks in the solar addition on the south side of the processing shed. Heat from glass-covered collectors circulates though the space by convection. The ideal temperature is about 110 degrees. Any higher kills the flavor. If it doesn’t get hot enough, Tom folds up the leather and puts it in the freezer, then takes it out on the next sunny day to complete the drying process. They’ve thought of drying machines, but electricity is expensive, and the sun is usually enough.
Holly has been fascinated to discover that besides all their other desirable aspects, blueberries are good for the eyesight. In early days, when they were working like crazy from sunup to 11 at night under lights in the driveway on a makeshift belt, she wasn’t eating much except up to 10 quarts of blueberries a day, snatched by the handful. “I noticed at the end of the season my eyesight had improved so much it was like I’d had an eye transplant. I could see long distances like I had binoculars.” She still notices that every summer when she eats lots of blueberries, her distance vision has improved. “I’d love to have someone research it. I do know there’s supposed to be something in blueberries that’s like the European bilberry. My dad was a pilot in the war and before missions they had bilberry jam, because it’s supposed to help your eyes adjust to light. That’s the part of the industry I’d really like to see somebody study, because blueberries are such a precious crop. They just grow in certain parts of the country and they taste so good. I would like to see somebody take that on because it would help us with the blueberry industry in Maine.”
Helping the Local Economy
Until that happens, Holly and Tom are doing their best for the local economy in other ways, perhaps most directly by providing summer jobs for young people. Chad Barker lives at the bottom of the hill. Samantha and John Hutchinson live one house away. “They can fight among themselves as to who gets to work on the production belt, who baby sits the children,” Tom says. The Taylor-Lash twins, Alexander and Eric, three-and-a-half, each has his own baby-sitter, making it a lot simpler for Mom and Dad to run the shop. “The nice thing about this business is [the kids are] home all summer with us and we’re with them, which is more to the point,” he emphasizes. “They’ll have summer jobs for at least the next 15 years.” They actually started helping a year ago, touring the fields with a sitter, pulling weeds.
“Samantha wants to buy a horse,” Tom continues. “We’re holding back some of her earnings for her so she’ll have enough, theoretically. She hasn’t learned the discipline to manage money, yet. John wants to buy a riding lawnmower, which I think is hilarious. I don’t ask. If they want us to keep money for them, we’ll help them save. They’ve got a job where they can make money.” Paying jobs for young teenagers in rural areas are scarce. “By running a profitable business, or at least a sustainable business, we can provide thousands of dollars to a family, make an impact. It’s handy for us, and after we’re done, we all go down to the lake for a swim.”
The local economy benefits in other ways from operations like Gramp’s Farm. “Every time one of our boxes goes to Blue Hill, it sells for a markup and that money stays in the local economy, pretty much,” Tom says. “I can’t help but think it benefits a number of people. Working at Wal-Mart is nice, but it doesn’t really affect many more people, other than the corporate.”
Holding the Organic Line
Unlike most organic operations, wild blueberries don’t need any soil improvement. Adding nutrients encourages weeds, Tom points out. “They like poor, acidic soils. Dave Yarborough in his work at the University Extension Service has learned that putting a lot of fertilizers on blueberries is not going to be long-term productive. If you get weeds you have to spray with more chemicals. Without nutrients, blueberries seem to be pretty well evolved over thousands of years, so we’re hesitant to do much else.”
Controlling weeds to maintain maximum production is not so easily accomplished. “Deer that come in and munch the grasses are on the payroll. They don’t need money but they work for food,” Tom laughingly notes. “We pull bushes but we don’t burn. We were surprised to discover that when you don’t burn, you don’t have bare areas that encourage annual grasses. We also don’t leave oil residues on the field. They’re not good from an organic standpoint. It’s an accepted practice, but MOFGA doesn’t really like to do it. If we can demonstrate that you don’t have to burn all the time, maybe we can change the standards to reflect that.”
Even mowing doesn’t seem to be absolutely necessary in their experience. “We’re trying a patch that we didn’t mow and it appears to have just as heavy a berry set as when it was mowed the year before,” Holly says. “Mowing helps to control the alders, but once you mow, you have to get rid of the stuff you mowed. Someone suggested mowing with a lawn tractor that mulches. I tried it and it works very well. When my dad was alive, we tried flail mowing on the field across the road. We hardly had a crop the next year. It looked like it really damaged the crop. We didn’t want to do that again.”
For organic growers, there’s no question about whether or not to spray, but overspray from nearby commercial growers is always a potential problem. (See ***The MOF&G, ***March-May 2002.) The Taylor-Lashes have a setback on one side of the field across the road, because it borders on the Allen conventional operation next door. At one time, the Taylor-Lashes were selling berries to factories, but then the factories decided not to accept berries unless they were sprayed. “But they never came over to test to determine if there was a problem,” Holly says. “They would accept other berries from fields that had been sprayed that were obviously infested with maggots, because they could mix them with berries from cleaner fields and still hit the minimum. It was very frustrating for us that we were asked to spray our field that didn’t need it, when they could accept berries from worse places that had been sprayed. So we got into our own business!”
Tom and Holly also were looking for ways to make their fields more profitable to avoid any possibility of subdividing the fields in the future. “Now that we can put the land into a conservation easement, it’s not a worry.”
Weeds aren’t much of a worry, either. “We work in harmony with our surroundings,” Holly continues. Instead of thinking of wildflowers as pestiferous weeds, she enjoys them and puts them to use. “They don’t take over the field that much, they look pretty and they help with pollinating the berries. We used to have a system where we picked for individual accounts and each account was marked by a special flower – black-eyed Susans, yarrow, buttercups, daisies …
Holly enjoys every aspect of her work. “You have to love what you’re doing, because it’s a lot of work. As much as you want to increase the value of your product, I can’t see us ever getting rich. I think about all the farm families I know. Their work is hard and long, but when I look at the children from those farm families, I would say that 95 percent of those children seem happy. I find kids just brought up with computer age gadgets and TV tend to be detached and away from what seems to make you feel like you belong.
“I think that working the land really does something for your spirit, so I love raking. I was raking over there a couple of times, when deer would come up because they were so curious. I’ve shooed them out of the field more times. I’ve shooed families of raccoon with their babies. We share with everyone. I even had a coyote come out of the woods one year, watch what I was doing, then take off. I’ve had wild turkeys. I had wood lilies over there and we were afraid we would lose them. Through careful marking of the plants, making sure no treatments were made in that area, I now have a whole field of wonderful red wood lilies. When I see them, it’s a reminder to appreciate what’s there.”
She’s even reluctant to exterminate goldenrod. “You have to get rid of some of it, but if you’re going to have a native bee population, you’d better be darn sure you’ll have something for them to feed on after the blueberry blossoms are past. Wild roses are another thing. I don’t understand it but it’s a companion planting. Whenever I see a rose bush I go there for prime berries. They’re the most beautiful berries in the field. It’s hard to rake them, but I don’t pull out the roses.”
About the author: Jane has been writing her wonderful feature stories for The MOF&G almost since the paper began. This will be the last article that she contributes from Maine, as she is “retiring” to Northern California. We look forward to seeing her articles about organic life on the West Coast and wish her the best of luck.