Charlie Hitchings has been growing organic blueberries for thirty years at Spring River Farm in Cherryfield and actively cultivating them for almost a decade. On May 10, researchers and scientists from the University of Maine Orono and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) gathered there to observe the results of his labors. This was the first conference to be held on a grower’s fields under the aegis of The Blueberry Organic Transition Project, which seeks to establish best practices for growers of low bush blueberries who wish to move from conventional methods to organic growing methods.
Blessed with a beautiful sunny morning, they followed Charlie over hill and dale, through woods and across streams to the barrens on a corner of his 400-acre farm, to observe his methods and results first-hand. Any time one inserts oneself into the natural order of things, life gets complex, but Hitchings is trying to work with Mother Nature as much as possible.
Therefore, the compost heap, that backbone of organic practices, was the first stop on the tour. Here project leader, Frank Drummond, Professor of Insect Pest Management, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maine, began the lively questioning that Hitchings enjoyed throughout the two-hour field trip. As might be expected, Eric Sideman, Director of Technical Services, MOFGA, also asked detailed questions about composting and made quite a study of this five-foot pile of dirt and granite dust, blueberry and other vegetable wastes, sawdust, rock phosphate, potassium sulfate and horse manure.
Organic production requires organic rather than synthetic chemical fertilizer, and here Hitchings is abundantly aided by his wife, Deb Ballam, who keeps five horses for breeding and providing equestrian therapy for the mentally handicapped. As a bonus, they also provide just the organic ingredient Hitchings needs for his compost heap.
The group followed a dirt road that wound onto the barrens where evidence of the past few years of drought was clearly visible. Some spots that had been fried by the unusually hot and dry conditions have given way to grass. Here, David Yarborough, Extension Blueberry Specialist and Professor of Horticulture had many questions relating to his fields of expertise - crop management, weed control and field cover. Organic growing eschews the use of herbicides and the grass that moved in during the drought has subsided somewhat according to Hitchings, as a result of his mulching and weeding efforts. The occasional application of elemental sulfur has also been found to help lower the PH of the soil and minimize grasses.
Seanna Annis, Assistant Professor of Mycology, University of Maine, is an expert in plant pathology, mummyberry, stem blight and leaf spot diseases and throughout the ramble, she searched for signs of these problems. One objective of organic growing is to produce strong plants that are naturally resistant to disease, but these enemies can spring up anywhere at any time as all farmers know.
The relative benefits of burning and mowing were of great interest to all, particularly John Smagula, Professor of Horticulture at UM and an expert in physiology and culture, crop management and propagation. Hitchings mows and burns. He has found that a schedule of mowing and burning promotes growth and production while contributing to the control of pest infestation and disease. Burning vegetable waste is not permitted by federal organic standards except for burning of diseased plant matter. Since Hitchings considers burning essential for optimum results in the cultivation of low bush blueberries, he has created his own trademark brand, “Eco-Conserve,” which allows burning, but is more restrictive in other respects than the national standards for organic production. For instance, to qualify as Eco-Conserve berries, no exotic bees may be introduced into the fields. Instead, the grower must enhance the environment so local bees will be available to do the job of pollination. Sprays of any kind, organic or otherwise, are also prohibited, as are “dead animal” fertilizers i.e. those that contain blood meal and/or bone meal.
The scientists on this survey discussed insects and fertility at great length. Hitchings’ farm provides good “bee pasture,” a varied landscape full of the materials bees require in order to thrive. Wild bees need access to water and food, and sometimes oils, resins, leaves and mud are essential. They also need optimal nest sites, over-wintering habitat and mating sites in order to sustain a strong population of pollinators, and flowering plants that are good pollen and nectar resources for bees must be available from early spring to late summer to insure their presence in numbers. These flowering trees, woody shrubs and herbaceous plants serve multiple roles as wind breaks, floral resources, mating and nesting sites.
It is estimated that only 1% of the wild blueberries grown in Maine are grown organically. These wild blueberries are already highly prized and the present demand far exceeds the supply. It is therefore possible for growers to get more money per quart from their fresh berry customers, as much as 20 to 50% more in Hitchings’ experience . As the healthful properties of blueberries become more widely known, it is anticipated that the demand for organically grown blueberries will increase exponentially. Since wild blueberries are smaller than their high-bush cousins, they have more blue skin surface per quart, making them richer in the antioxidants for which blueberries are becoming famous. Hitchings has also compared organically grown wild blueberries with their conventionally grown brothers and finds the skin of the organic berry just a bit thicker. This makes them easier to handle and far more flavorful.
It is the goal of The Blueberry Organic Transition Project, now in its second year operating under a four-year grant, to add information about organic methods to their already extensive resources on wild blueberry growing. Go to www.wildblueberries.maine.edu. for more information on all phases of low bush blueberry culture and to contact Frank Drummond or any of these professionals.
Frank Drummond plans to have best practices information available for those who want to make the transition from conventional growing methods to organic methods and he’s doing it with the help of experienced growers like Charlie Hitchings who have been at it for thirty years.