Apr 7, 2007Kentucky Couple Spreads the Good News About Blueberries
When Jenny and Larry Martin moved to Kentucky in 1995, they brought more blueberry bushes with them than there were in the entire state. It was the genesis of the burgeoning Kentucky blueberry industry.
The husband and wife team own Bluegrass Blueberries in Edmonton, Ky. They have 6 acres of blueberry plants grown for fruit production and 2 acres of nursery plants. Their blueberry expertise has spread throughout the state and helped transform the lives of many of its farmers, Jenny said.
“There is nothing else you can grow that will bring in more income per acre,” she said. “When we came here, we were basically quite poor. We’re not poor now.”
The Martins are originally from Michigan. Larry grew up in Grand Junction, the “blueberry capital of the world,” where he worked in blueberry fields from a young age. By the time he graduated from high school, he knew how to handle every aspect of a blueberry farm, according to www.bluegrassblueberries.com.
Jenny didn’t know anything about blueberries when she met Larry, but that didn’t last long. Soon enough, she bought her own blueberry farm, which she later sold to buy into Larry’s farm. When both their mothers died, they decided to pursue Jenny’s dream and move to Kentucky. They haven’t looked back since.
“We decided it was too cold in Michigan,” she said with a laugh. “It’s been a fairy tale for us. Everything’s just worked out so well.”
Jenny had traveled through Kentucky before and loved everything about it. The old-fashioned, slow (and warm) country life felt normal and natural to her. Her husband was hesitant about the move at first, but he’s glad they did it, she said.
They found a farm and, of course, fell in love with it. They also discovered the blueberry bushes they brought from Michigan grew extremely well in the Kentucky climate. Their original goal was just to produce fruit, but people started asking them for plants. That’s how the nursery began.
Jenny worked off the farm the first few years, while Larry spent his days planting bushes. Eventually, they became self-sufficient. They now derive their income exclusively from their blueberry business.
The Martins moved south at an opportune time. Kentucky farmers have been looking for cash crops to replace tobacco, and blueberries seemed like a good fit. With help from state universities, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and other organizations, the Martins started spreading the word about the benefits of blueberries. In 2002, they founded the Kentucky Blueberry Growers Association. Jenny has even been called the “Blueberry Queen of Kentucky,” she said.
“They’re behind a lot of the increase in acreage we’ve had,” said John Strang, Extension fruit and vegetable specialist with the University of Kentucky. “I give them credit for doing a lot of promotion.”
When the Martins first moved to Kentucky, there were about 5 acres of blueberry bushes in the entire state. Currently, there are close to 100 acres. Compared to Michigan’s 18,000, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but the southern state’s central location and ideal weather give it tremendous potential for growth, Jenny said.
So does demand. Edmonton is in the middle of nowhere, but people will drive as long as four hours to pick berries from the farm. Demand is crazy.
U-pick and pre-pick sales comprise a large chunk of the farm’s income, with the wholesale market taking up the rest. Jenny delivers handpicked berries to local grocery stores herself. They have excellent quality and shelf life, she said.
The u-pick market is endless. The farm could make all its money there, but the Martins want to develop relationships with grocery stores and other commercial outlets that will help preserve and expand the industry in years to come.
Bluegrass Blueberries now supports three families. Larry’s youngest son and his wife moved nearby a few years ago, and Larry’s brother now lives across the street. They both grow plants for the business.
“We’re not scraping by,” Jenny said. “We’re doing well.”
An acre of mature bushes – roughly 640 – will produce about 12,000 pounds of blueberries. That’s a lot of profit and a lot of work. The Martins employ up to 10 people to help them – usually during picking season, she said.
Harvest starts about June. That’s when most u-pick customers visit. Everyone is insanely busy. Sometimes, they work from 6 a.m. until midnight.
The farm sells “thousands and thousands” of pints of fruit annually, she said.
“Every year our business doubles. It’s hard to keep up with it.”
The plants are watered using overhead irrigation. Fertilizers are used to increase nitrogen levels in the soil. Fungicide and insecticide sprays help protect the plants, she said.
The nursery is handled a bit differently than the other fields. Nursery plants are grown from cuttings and sold when they’re 2 years old. They grow in beds under shade cloth to protect them from the sun. Both northern and southern highbush varieties are used – one of the advantages of living in Kentucky – though northern varieties are a little more successful, she said.
The Martins grow thousands of blueberry bushes in their nursery, but can’t grow enough to meet demand. They ship all over the world. Twenty thousand of their plants will go to California later this year, she said.
One way to increase production is to teach other people how to be producers. The Martins are happy to give individual instruction to anyone who is interested. They even taught the basics to University of Kentucky Extension agents. Jenny travels around the state quite a bit, educating people about the benefits of the little blue fruit.
“We’re adamant about teaching people how to propagate blueberries,” she said. “You can start on a shoestring and be extremely successful.”
The aim isn’t to sell somebody a plant just to get his money, she said. If people are going to grow blueberries, they need to do it right. It doesn’t matter where they buy their plants.
Eating and growing blueberries have become such popular regional activities that Edmonton now hosts an annual blueberry festival. No such festival existed before the Martins came to town. It’s a good fit for everybody.
“I get to work every day with my best friend,” she said. “We’re outdoors, in fresh air, growing things. It’s just a great life.”