Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Blueberry Years

The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family
Jim Minick (2010, Thomas Dunne Books)

    Jim Minick had a dream: to run a pick-your-own-blueberry farm deep in the Virginia countryside, using all organic farming methods, living in a farmhouse heated with wood from the farm. Minick was a college English instructor, and his wife Sarah a kindergarten teacher; they dreamed of homesteading, and of making enough money on blueberries to leave their jobs behind. The Blueberry Years is Jim Minick’s memoir about the hard realities of that dream, and what the blueberries taught them.
    When Jim and Sarah bought the ninety-acre farm in 1991, it had no cleared fields except the garden, and no roads to what would be the fields, but it had plenty of water and a nice old house. They were blessed, perhaps, with ignorance about how much work their vision was going to entail: after forty years, a Virginia field devolves to scrub pine, requiring chainsaws and bulldozers just to get down to a field full of roots and rocks. Their inexperience can be frustrating to read about: did they really start two hives of bees in an inaccessible location, only to abandon them? Did they really have all the plants delivered before they broke ground on the field? This meant that all the plants had to be watered by hand with buckets from the creek for a few weeks--not a promising start.

    The manuals about blueberry growing that the Minicks consult contain knowledge, but also plenty of gaps. They don’t cover organic practices, for instance, or offer any tips on getting a thousand plants into the ground in a timely way. “And really, the answers I searched for often could come only from the field itself and those of us trying to make it something blue, but I didn’t know this at the time.” He has to write his own book, in conversation with the field, which “has a history to remember, a topography to read, and a soil to taste.”

    So they figure things out. Graph paper, stakes, string. Peat, sawdust, fertilizer. Tractors, spreaders, hoes, buckets. Irrigation. Mulch: sawdust, pine straw, wood chips. A shed for weighing and selling the berries, an outhouse. And, in time, it works. Six different varieties, ripening at different times, make possible a five or six week season of fresh berries, and people come from all over to pick them.

    Minick’s sketches of the various kinds of people who come make it clear that they are one of his favorite things about the business. “They come single or divorced, widow or bachelor, coupled, gay and straight, married and not; they come celebrating their sixtieth anniversary or their honeymoon, feeding each other gentle pinches of blue.”

    But outside of picking season, it can be a lonely life. Minick makes friends with one of his neighbors, but many others display the clannish reserve of eighth-generation hill people. Seeking a social outlet, Jim and Sarah visit churches full of old people, and introduce themselves to the local hippie communes, but real connection is elusive.

    So is profit. In a good year, the field produces six thousand pounds of berries, which nearly pay the expenses, though with nothing left over for the labor. In a bad year like 2002, with a freeze and a plague of raccoons, the farm looks more like a hobby than a business.  “For the first time, we learn what ‘crop failure’ really means, not some abstraction in the newspaper, but this, an empty field, an empty cash drawer, and a row of empty buckets.”

    The decision to let the farm go is a hard one, softened by the beauty of the new farmland the Minicks are buying seventy-five miles away. They find a buyer with his own blueberry dreams, who wants what they have, though the chances are not good that he’ll maintain the field in a productive state. At the new place, Jim and Sarah content themselves with a few new blueberries. Fifty plants will surely be enough.

    The Blueberry Years is about a single farm in one county in Virginia, but, inevitably, it’s about all farming, and all food. The Minicks are just one of the thousands of farm families who ‘exit’ the farming life every year. Lyrical and down-to-earth, sweet and melancholy by turns, the book gives us a human-scale way to think about what it takes to wrest nutrition from nature, about organic and local food, and how fragile the whole system is.