July 23, 2011
Berries are blooming at White Oak Farm (Video)
And the pickers sure know it
Douglas Imbrogno
Max Robinson had long dreamed of being a small farmer. His several acres of blueberries, first planted in 1993 on a Greenbrier County hillside, delivered on the dream.
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RENICK, W.Va. -- A rooster's 'cock-a-doodle-do' trumpets across the misty green hills and hollows of White Oak Farm. From the lawn of the 100-year-old house that caps the property, a visitor gazes on a postcard scene of solitude in the Greenbrier County outback.

Then, the clock strikes 8 a.m. A crunch of tires on gravel fills the air. A second car arrives, followed by a pick-up. Then, two SUVs drive up the country lane to the house. They keep coming. It's like a parade has found the place out.

The blueberry troops have come.

It's high season for blueberry picking at one of West Virginia's larger pick-your-own blueberry farms. And the blueberry-aholics appear to know where to find their fix.

"I picked about 10 pounds of blueberries last week. Froze 'em, ate 'em, baked a cobbler -- and I'm back. They're delicious." said Susan Hewman, as she worked her way down a lane of bushes, a white plastic bucket tied about her waist. "I'll come again before the season's over."

Max and Anne Robinson began planting blueberry bushes on the farm's hillside in 1993. They invited the public to start picking in 1998.

"I haven't been without blueberries for breakfast since about '98 or '99," said Robinson, although he does have competition.

His competitors are named Hannah and Katie, ages 17 and 15, and Ben and Nathan, ages 14 and 11 -- the couple's offspring, all seasoned pickers and consumers. "I'm competing with four teenagers now. I don't always get my share," he said with broad smile.

He stood amid the farm's four acres of bushes, each as tall as a door frame. The blueberries are laid out in neat parallel rows on a sloping hillside, so they may be picked from either side.

The field is, effectively, the office where Robinson now goes to work, leaving behind his former lives as a Jackson County school teacher and assistant lab instructor at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in nearby Lewisburg.

More than a full-time job

Robinson recalled the blueberry farm's early days, when his plants were knee high "and praying that someday they'd be this big," he said. "It's rewarding now to see them producing more than I thought they ever would."

He always wanted to be a small farmer, he said, and is hugely pleased he finally found the right thing to raise.

"My grandmother's family has an apple orchard in Sutton -- Morton's -- and I wanted to do that. The more I looked at it, there wasn't any living in it. A friend of mine . . . said, 'You should try blueberries, they're pretty easy.' They aren't pretty easy, but it was enough to get me started."

Blueberry farming is more than a full-time job, said Robinson.

"I prune from October to March, every day. We spread a lot of sawdust. There's irrigation problems and disease problems. We try not to spray, and so some of those things are harder to take care of when you don't rely on sprays. That's part of why we prune so hard."

Like any crop-based farmer, his field owes its success or failure to the grace or fury of Mother Nature. Last year? Not a year he likes to recall, when a devastating killing frost struck the hillside.

"We lost the crop -- had a 15 percent crop. I had to hang drywall for a friend. You never know if it's going to happen again. It could've happened again this year. Two years in a row probably would have done me in.

"Everybody comes in and says, oh, maybe this'll be a great year to make up for last year. But the best you can hope for is that you save some money, so when it happens again you'll be able to handle it."

He added with a chuckle, not without gallows humor in it: "I'm getting too old to hang drywall."

Pick me

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