Organic blueberry demand is ripe for the picking in Kentucky

 Sep 8, 2016 11:43:00 PM

“When our farm was certified in 2009, there wasn’t as much local buzz around organic” says Susan. Inthe following years, fellow Kentucky organic growers like Susan would search for information about becoming certified organic but find limited local resources. “I was the only person in our state Blueberry Growers Association that was certified organic. Growers would come to association to express interest in going organic, and the association would point them back to me!” Susan described. In those days, she became the go-to expert on organic farming for the association. “The practice of organic farming just made so much sense to me”, explains Susan about her search for natural growing methods. “I learned early on that the things that you eat can affect your health”, she explains. From cancer in the family to recurring migraines connected to nitrates in processed meat – early on in her career, Susan started a journey to find a natural way to do things. “If I can’t eat it, then I wouldn’t spray it on my plants” she ardently proclaims.


Local support has advanced in recent years, as demand for the state’s organic blueberries continues to increase from local and regional creameries, wineries, homeopathic doctors and farm to table purveyors. “Because the demand is there, now the conversation and the support exists” says Susan.


Today, the Kentucky Blueberry Growers Association, now a Certified operation itself, is bolstering supply for the state’s organic demand by providing organic technical support to its 200 plus members in transition or currently certified. The state’s organic blueberries are supplying their nosh to ice cream factories, wineries and direct from farm to tables, aiming to satisfy increasing organic appetites. Susan believes the rise due to “people waking up and realizing they need to pay attention” to what they’re eating. Blueberries – one of Kentucky’s emerging small fruit crops for local, wholesale and retail – are in a positive position to absorb consumer demand.


In the past 10 years of organic operation, Fuller’s Hillside Nursery has experienced challenges not uncommon to many farmers, both conventional and organic. “There are always going to be challenges unique to location, soil and pests,” claims Susan. Fuller’s Hillside Nursery is in a small valley protected from the wind by tall trees and turkey vultures who scare off the other little birds. This is unlike other conventional and organic growers in the area who put up tightly woven netting to prevent birds – who are particularly fond of blueberries – from enjoying the crop. Susan uses organic sulfur to increase the acidity of the soil for her sweeter Jersey blueberry variety that yields small and soft berries. When cared for properly, blueberry bushes can remain productive for 40 years or more.


Transitioning with the end in mind


Fuller’s Hillside Nursery began a transitional process to obtain organic certification, which includes a three-year period set forth by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The ruling is that any field or farm parcel from which harvested crops are sold, labeled, or represented as organic must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for three years immediately preceding harvest of the crop. Susan’s field had chemicals sprayed on it prior to her purchase of the land, so she embarked on the journey, farming organically while waiting for the period of limitations to expire.


“When we got the farm, the grass was as tall as my blueberry bushes”. Susan waited for three years before receiving certification to prove that there had been no unapproved chemicals on the property. “It wasn’t a quick process, but my customers like the fact that I don’t spray anything on my berries”. Until she became USDA Certified Organic, Susan would market her berries as ‘grown using organic methods’. Her land required cultivation – from mowing the fields down, to pruning, to battling the 17 year return of the cicadas. “We learned a lot about pruning in those years. My advice – don’t be afraid to prune!”. When asked about the intensity of labor in the process, Susan shrugs in remembrance. “We just wanted healthy plants” says Susan, about her dedication to the cause.


“There’s a lot of focus around the paperwork required in order to become certified organic. I support the requirement, but even more so, I think you should have to have paperwork to use chemicals!” states Susan emphatically. “Normal grocery shopping used to be in your garden, or you bartered with your neighbors and they never brought chemicals on them. That was just the way people always did it.”


Organic building blocks - from worms and rabbits to sawdust


Keeping plants healthy starts with good soil biology. Essentially, building a mini compost around the plant. “Worms come and do what worms do”, says Susan, “breaking down organic matter and helping to fertilize – which gives your plants the things that it needs”. Early on, Fuller’s Nursery employed organic practices like shoveling 30 tons of mulch an acre when first preparing the field for planting, because the soil had not been maintained at all. The previous owner spayed weeds around bushes, but did not focus on the soil health. Conversely, Susan loaded up sawmill, shoveled “broke down sawdust – it was like black earth when we got it,” she says, "along with rabbit manure and lawn clippings to build up the soil biology."


Through compost, mowing and pruning, the blueberry fields are able to be maintained. Blueberries are not a crop that need to be planted year after year – the bushes remain intact. But blueberries benefit from pruning, especially as they become older. The yearly pruning helps encourage large fruits and maintain productivity, while allowing sunshine into the bushes which helps to ripen the berries.


Fuller’s Hillside Nursery faces typical sourcing challenges that are faced by operations in day to day supply decisions. Sourcing organic supply for farm inputs offers a few more challenges than conventional but not uncommon to running a business. “It comes down to good business sense and understanding where to find reliable suppliers,” Susan claims. “We run comparisons in pricing between local distributors and national, balancing between when supply is needed versus how much is it going to cost to move somewhere else. Sometimes a tank of gas is cheaper than the shipping fees” of goods that are needed on the farm, like fertilizer. “It’s not like you can go to Lowe’s and say, 'I’d like a 5-gallon pail' of all of your supplies. They just don’t have that kind of stuff." But, Susan is seeing an increase in organic inputs at local stores, like Amish hardware stores, who farm organically.


“I’m just a small organic farmer,” says Susan Fuller, when you ask her about her 500 blueberry bushes she harvests in Summer Shade KY and her plans for expansion based on demand. “I’ll tell you one thing," she states definitively when asked about her career, as she makes her lifelong passion crystal clear, “I wouldn’t farm any other way but organic.”