September 27, 2023

ALLENWOOD, Pa. — When Harry and Susan Jones purchased their 6-acre blueberry farm, Bridge Avenue Berries, from the Byers family in the spring of 2018, their intentions were clear. They wanted to have an organic pick-your-own farm with a family-friendly feel, while also educating the public in a subtle, approachable way.

As they enter into their sixth season, they have already achieved those goals, offering blueberry bushes at an ideal picking height, mowed grass between the rows and shaded areas for families to rest, eat lunch and play on the swing set.

They also added a pollinator garden — a labor of love for both Harry and Sue. He installed the three rock walls and she took the lead on the native plantings, which are labeled for educational purposes.

“We have at least three species of native bumblebees here. The orchard bees provide 99% of the pollination, which is why we need nice hedgerows, because that’s their habitat,” Harry explained. “The bumblebees live in the hedgerows, and we have no problem with pollination whatsoever.”

A Bumpy Start to the Organic Path

The path to their pick-your-own farm started out with some bumps in the road. As soon as they opened for their first season, Harry and Sue (who have been married for 37 years and are familiar with navigating challenges) noticed a pesky pest inside the berries.

“We got halfway through the first season and we were finding lovely little blueberry maggots in the berries, “ said Sue. This was largely due to the previous owners not having an adequate spraying strategy.

“Apparently the pest had been on the farm for years, but we didn’t know that and didn’t know at the time (of sale) to ask,” Harry said.

The couple attended a Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association meeting, where Harry talked to some representatives from Rutgers Cooperative Extension and Marone Biological about how to control the blueberry maggots using organic methods.

“Marone had a specific spray that worked very well on blueberry maggots and the rep from Rutgers helped me understand the life cycle and when I should spray,” Harry said. For 2019, 2020 and 2021, I was spraying every seven days during the appropriate times, and we were putting out sticky traps so I could tell when they were hatching.”

Fast forward to 2023 and the pest has been eradicated.

Other pests that require continuous monitoring on the farm include starlings. Harry estimates there are 200 living among the 4,000 blueberry plants. He researched some control options, including an oscillating laser, but for now they simply “put up with” the birds.

A Lifelong Dream Realized

Harry, who has a degree in horticulture from Williamsport Area Community College (WACC), now called Penn College, has a background working in garden centers and landscaping.

He said he has always had a spark for business ownership, so when the opportunity came, he didn’t hesitate. Harry noticed the “For Sale” sign in April 2017 and immediately asked Sue if they should purchase the property. She gave him a resounding “no.”

But, when the couple visited the farm to pick blueberries in July of that same year, Harry casually mentioned his possible interest to the young woman who was working at the farmstand. Soon enough, Mr. Byers came around the corner and said, “So, I hear you want to buy a blueberry farm?” Harry recalled fondly.

By fall of 2017, Harry and Sue were under contract for the property. They sold their nearby farmette, started making plans for the organic certification and ordered soil tests.

“The soil was unbalanced nutritionally, so we started working with Fertrell (an organic fertilizer and soil amendment specialist) in Bainbridge,” Harry said. “We knew we wanted to be certified-organic, so we started getting the soil tested and building the fertilizer for the next year.”

Not surprisingly, the soil composition was ideal for blueberries.

“The soil here is absolutely beautiful. It’s 10 to 12 inches of sandy loam and then it goes to the subsoil as sandy clay,” Harry continued. “These blueberry plants love it and they can withstand dry conditions.”

Bridge Avenue Berries offers a mixture of Bluecrop and Blueray highbush blueberries as well as some Jerseys — all of which have been pruned to the ideal picking height, with mowed grass in between the rows.

The fields are level and easily accessible, ideal for all ages and people with disabilities. During a recent visit, the farm was bustling with older couples and young families alike.

The farm also offers some heirloom varieties, which were cultivated by the Houts family who owned the farm in the 60s.

Harry said he learned from Mr. Houts’ son that his father was a professor of horticulture at the University of Maryland.

“He was taking different blueberries, crossing them, getting the seeds, starting the seeds, and then bringing the plants up and putting them out here,” Harry said. “The rows marked heirloom are the ones he started in an effort to add a new variety to the trade.”

Harry said the heirloom varieties, which have unknown parentage, were overgrown and needed some aggressive pruning. “I knew if you cut them off at the ground, they would regrow, so that’s what we did,” he said. “That heirloom patch has regrown and now it’s the best part of the farm in my opinion. You can find little blueberries, big blueberries, some with a tart taste, some that are sweet and some that are darker than the others.”

A Sea Change for Weed Control

From the very outset, the couple wanted the farm to be organic as a way to foster healthy soil and a healthy ecosystem surrounding it. This was a sea change from the way Harry and many others had viewed the use of pesticides in the decades before.

Harry recalled when he graduated from WACC in 1985, commercial pesticides were just coming on the market and he spent much of his professional career with a backpack sprayer, applying the chemicals to crops and plants at home and in his professional roles.

“I remember reading articles about chemical weed control … you spray it on the ground and it becomes inert. And then we found out all these years later, that is not the case,” he said. “(So) when we came here I decided I was done spraying pesticide and started reading about organic production”

It took Bridge Avenue Berries three years to transition to organic and receive a USDA organic certification from Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), which requires a yearly inspection of the farm and its record keeping.

Bridge Avenue Berries is now considering transitioning away from USDA-certification to organic certification from the Real Organic Project (RCO), due to personal and business concerns with many aspects of USDA’s current organic program.

Harry said while the certification is expensive (because of the cost of organic fertilizer and spray), they are able to recoup some of the costs in their berry prices.

The current price for pick-your-own organic blueberries, which runs for just four weeks in July, is $2.70/pound, $43 for 10 pounds pre-picked, and $16 for 3 pounds frozen.

“We have 15 to 20 people that pick for us every day, ranging anywhere in age from from 8 to 84,” Harry said.

The farm also offers frozen red raspberries during the winter months.

“Last year we picked about 330 pounds of red raspberries from our 145-foot row,” Harry said.

While the farm is already a full-time job, Harry continues to work full-time off the farm, as the sales manager of Lewis Lumber Products in Picture Rocks. Sue works part-time as a dental hygienist in Lewisburg.

Harry is grateful his manager allows him to work “blueberry hours” in July, coming in at 6 in the morning and working until noon, when he heads to the farm for another full-day’s work.

Coming Soon: Irrigation

Thanks to a USDA grant, Bridge Avenue Berries received a $130,000 grant to cover about 80% of the costs of a cutting-edge subsurface drip irrigation system.

Last year, the well was installed for the system. This fall they expect to put in the pump, the main line going out into the field and the controls. Fall of 2024, they will begin the installation of the drip tube system.

“We’re going to put a row of drip tube up both sides of the blueberries. Then it’ll be buried about 3 to 4 inches below the surface of the ground — with dripping meters every 2 feet — then covered back up. It will put water where it’s needed and won’t be a trip hazard,” Harry explained.

While this growing season started out very dry and irrigation would have been helpful, the farm has seen ample rain in recent weeks and the blueberries respond quickly to water, said Harry.

Bridge Avenue also sells blueberries to several local restaurants including The Watson Inn in Watsontown, Kathy’s Café in Hughesville and Basil Wood Fired Kitchen in Muncy. They can also be found at the Susquehanna Valley Growers Market in Lewisburg and the Williamsport Growers Market.

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