It’s time to indulge in locavore blueberries, those sapphire superfood dynamos rich in antioxidants, imbued with vitamins C and E, high in fiber, low in calories.
A dream come true, right?
As if to dampen the glee of blueberry lovers everywhere, the watchdog Environmental Working Group recently ranked blueberries No. 10 on its 2011 Dirty Dozen list of conventionally grown domestic fruits and vegetables that contain the highest levels of pesticides. It’s the second time they’ve cracked the top 12.
Not surprisingly, the Alliance for Food and Farming, a group representing producers’ interests, contends that EWG’s numbers are misleading and that, in general, the pesticides used on blueberries are within USDA safety limits.
The best strategy for consumers, says EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunden, is to ask your local farmers about how they grow their produce. The proliferation of farmers markets has made that increasingly easy to do, and, in the case of two Maryland blueberry growers, I’ve done the legwork already.
Arthur James, 63, co-owns Washington County’s Blueberry Hill with his 33-year-old son, Michael. Ewald August, 76, owns Moody Blues Farm in Baltimore County. Both men — white-haired, earnest and with compelling personal histories — sell extraordinary northern highbush blueberries at markets in the Washington area. James is a certified organic grower; August is not.
At age 21, James was drafted, went to Vietnam and returned two years later seriously wounded, settling in Clear Spring, Md., on secluded mountain land that offered privacy. At17, August began a long corporate career with A&P, eventually becoming a produce buyer.
Approaching 50 and realizing he’d need something to do once his career ended, August bought his 20-acre farm in Windsor Mill near Baltimore in 1984. It proved a wise strategy; unable to adapt to a computerized corporate environment, he retired in 1996.
An early attempt at farming began with planting 3,500 Christmas trees and ended when deer ate the tops off all the trees. After that, August thought he’d try blueberries, an interest he’d acquired when traveling to Texas, Florida and New Jersey as a buyer. In 1991, he bought his first plants.
On a hot, sunny May morning, we stroll his 21 / 2-acre plot of neatly rowed, four-foot-high bushes packed with green berries. August claims he did not really know what he was doing when he started out 20 years ago.
“I bought 25 Bluecrop (a variety that ripens mid-season) plants the first year and then 75 more and just stuck ’em in the lawn. I had good connections in the produce business, and this fellow from Variety Farms in New Jersey sent me a box of 300 cuttings about 1 year old, each about six inches with bare roots.” They were Dukes.
They “are just about the best berry there is,” he says. “Bright, big, juicy and sweet, but with some sour in the back. When they turn from green to blue, they pick up another third in size.”
By 2008, August had 500 bushes. He got 250 more in 2009 and another 250 in 2010. Each bush can yield 10 to 35 pints of berries.
“It wasn’t until two years ago that they really proliferated,” says August. He credits that to a combination of irrigation (from a system he installed then), mulch, proper pH and brutal pruning down to the crown, cutting out about 25 percent of old wood every year.
Blueberries thrive with lots of water at the roots — hence the importance of mulch — and in acidic soil with a pH between 4.5 and 5. The pH of August’s loamy soil is not that low, so in addition to conditioning it with Canadian peat moss, he fertilizes with ammonium sulfate.
“I use what the USDA recommends (for non-organic growers). I think that’s what makes my bushes so full, but it’s also the big thing that doesn’t make me organic,” August says. He also sometimes uses Bonide, a chemical insecticide, to spray his bushes at the end of the season, when they are “sick puppies.”
The subject almost pains August. He talks about his bushes as if they were his children.
“I’d never spray the fruit. If you use [the pesticide] to the right degree, with discretion and care, it can be beneficial,” he contends. “I really don’t know about the organic products, but I’d like to learn about them.”
Arthur James planted his first blueberries in 1980 and now has about 800 bushes. Even if the acidic soil on his acre near Fairview Mountain weren’t already perfectly suited for blueberry cultivation, James says, he would never use chemicals to lower the pH.
“I had a horrible experience with chemicals for seven months [in Vietnam]. I saw what Agent Orange did, defoliating whole jungles. Triple canopies. I know how sick I was and others with chloracne and jungle rot,” James recounts. “Three of my friends died.”
At first glance, James’s bushes seem helter-skelter and overgrown, with weeds creeping up their stalks. But as you walk up the slope on which they’re planted, the layout of rows becomes evident. At the base of each bush are the grass clippings, sawdust, horse manure and straw that fertilize it.
They must be doing something right. Blueberry Hill was one of 12 farms invited to bring the product that best represented them to the annual congressional picnic, held at the White House last week. Michael James brought blueberries.
The younger James, who graduated from Cornell University in 2001 with a degree in agriculture, runs Blueberry Hill, which now includes three acres of land his father bought in 1996, about three miles away. He has grown the business, which supports his family plus two full-time and three part-time employees, by building a high tunnel (unheated greenhouse) that extends the growing season and expanding into five farmers markets a week, up from one. He says growing a wide range of crops is essential.
“Blueberries are in for maybe a month and a half, so we need something to sell the rest of the time,” he says.
For blueberry lovers, however, that month and a half is nirvana.
On a recent Saturday at Moody Blues, Ewald August and his wife, plus a few helpers, had picked and packed 500 pints of berries to be sold at the Bethesda Central Farm Market the next day.
August says that what makes his berries so sweet and flavorful is the fact that, unlike Blueberry Hill, he doesn’t refrigerate them.
When I first developed the blueberry recipes that accompany this article, I used North Carolina berries purchased at Whole Foods Market, because Moody Blues berries weren’t yet ripe. When I retested with August’s fruit, the very berriness of my blueberry lemonade intensified, and the lemony compote on my summer couscous pudding popped.
In all fairness, I cannot discount the significance of one particular ingredient that could well have swayed my objectivity: the halo effect of having created a relationship with the farmer. When I finally tasted Blueberry Hill berries — grown on a mountainside, they are just ripening now — I scarfed them up without even washing them. (Of course, you should always rinse fruit well under cold running water, but note that EWG tested their fruit samples after they had been washed. On 20 percent of those samples, by the way, there was zero pesticide residue.)
Maybe I was predisposed to prefer the local product, but I cannot deny that August’s berries had a bright bloom about them that the North Carolina ones did not. The Dukes’ back-of the-palate tartness perfectly suited them to the mignonette dressing I created for a savory salad of grilled scallops, corn and feta cheese nestled in an arrangement of bright red butter lettuce, radicchio and arugula. Their plumpness and juiciness made them perfect foils in blueberry fritters, practically rendering their dipping sauce superfluous.
One noticeable organic/non-organic difference: price. August gets $3.50 per pint; Blueberry Hill charges $5 for a half-pint.
August, basically a hobbyist retiree, reckons his blueberries probably put him in the red. Still, he plans to plant 1,000 more bushes in the fall. That way, he says, he might be able to make some money at it.
“I kinda look at it like a future thing,” he says. “But I don’t think I’m gonna live that long.”
Hagedorn will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.