You may buy countless plastic clamshells of blueberries, but have you ever wondered about the blueberry picking and packing process? How do those blueberries actually make it from the plant to the package? We took a Real Food Summer road trip to Berry Lady Farms in Kingsburg, CA (along with friends from the California Farm Water Coalition) to find out.
A Visit to Berry Lady Farms
Berry Lady Farms is a part of the fertile farming region of California’s San Joaquin Valley known as the Fresno Fruit Trail. This small family farm grows several varieties of blueberries, along with blackberries. They also grow a special boysenberry breed known as Ruby Boysens.
Proprietor Gayle Willems loves giving visitors a history lesson about blueberries. Blueberries are one of only three fruits that are native to North America (along with cranberries and Concord grapes). The blueberry plant is a perennial shrub that can grow up to 6 to 7 feet tall. Under ideal conditions, it can continue to produce fruit for up to 40 to 50 years. A healthy plant has the potential of producing an amazing 300 pounds of fruit in a lifetime. And sure, they’re tasty, but the berries are also among the best foods you can eat. They are higher than any other fruit or vegetable in antioxidants; plus they are a great source of fiber and Vitamin C.
The blueberry picking season lasts from mid-May to early July. (When we were at the farm, we saw the last few days of what had been a very busy season.) The blueberries grow in clusters and you can easily pop them off the vine by hand (no thorns, no prickles). However, blueberry picking is an extremely labor-intensive process. On the Willems’ 100-acre farm, it takes 1,000 people to pick the berries over the eight-week harvest period.
Blueberry Picking and Packing
After workers pick the blueberries in the fields, the berries travel to the packing warehouse. The blueberries get dumped onto a long conveyor belt, where they go through multiple sorting processes. A specialized machine first pulls out any rocks, leaves, or tiny berries, as well as red or green berries. Next the machine scans the berries and pulls out the ones that are too soft. Finally the berries roll past a team of expert blueberry workers, who then do a visual sort to remove any stray or odd berries.
The remaining berries then continue their ride up the conveyor belt and into special sorting chutes. There the machines carefully weigh them and dump them into clamshells (made from recycled soda bottles). There’s no time wasted here, either. The computerized weight filler can process between 160 and 170 cups of blueberries per minute. At the final step in the process, a machine snaps the clamshell shut, and then workers pack the clamshells into boxes where they go on to the store.
Many Varieties of Blueberries
Berry Lady Farms grows 12 different different varieties of blueberries. During our visit, we had a chance to pick and sample the Emerald, Star, and Legacy varieties. We also got to see the tail end of the Larryberry crop (a special breed named for Gayle’s father). The Larryberries are huge – almost as big as a quarter – and were an instant hit with our kids. We had a contest to see who could find the biggest remaining Larryberry, which sent the kids scurrying off in every which direction to find the winning berry.
Hungry for blueberries yet? One last thing to remember – these farms pack and ship blueberries as soon as possible to keep them fresh. They arrive at the store unwashed, so don’t forget to wash them before you eat them at home.
Many thanks again to the California Farm Water Coalition and the Fresno County Farm Bureau for sponsoring and facilitating our trip.