Lexington family squeezes year-round profits from blueberries
To say Farm Bureau members Steve and Lisa Beilstein are adaptable would be an understatement. The business they have tenderly nourished and groomed over more than 25 years has thrived on the fact that it's constantly morphing.
Out of an 80-acre parcel of rolling Richland County terrain, that was originally intended for apple production, the Beilsteins have created Ohio's largest blueberry farm, known simply as "The Blueberry Patch." Although it sounds straightforward, there's a lot more to be discovered than twigs and berries.
"Having absolutely no horticulture background at all, I thought I could read a book and grow blueberries," said Steve, an architect by trade, who also puts 40 hours per week into the farm. But when he lost half of the 1,500 plants he put in the ground his first year, he found he needed more than literary guidance.
Consulting with other growers, Steve learned blueberry plants, although native to North America, require irrigation in Ohio's climate to fulfill the inch per week water needs of the bushes during the growing season. It was a learning curve that continues to this day, where The Blueberry Patch now boasts 18,000 plants on 12 acres of well-drained, limestone-void soil. Nearly 18 miles of permanently installed irrigation pipes line the fields, as do the Beilsteins' loyal customers, who fill the farm rows eagerly picking fresh blueberries each summer.
The Beilsteins grow 27 blueberry varieties so that each ripens at different times, giving pickers a continuous ripe product all the way from about the second week of July through the middle of September. About 5,000 visitors make their way to the farm during the first couple of busy weekends of the season.
"We always give our customers the best and cleanest picking spot in the field that has the ripest and biggest berries," Steve said. After the customers get their first choice, hired pickers harvest the best of what is left and the remaining are machine harvested.
Flattening the bumps
"When you spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the best, most consistent product at the least cost, you're going to end up with a great product people like," Steve said.
And there's a lot to like. Besides selling their blueberries year-round in three- and six- pound buckets, the Beilsteins sell wholesale to bakeries, jam makers, wineries, restaurants and are even working on a plan to get them in local grocery stores.
Other producers were on to the Beilsteins early. As The Blueberry Patch started propagating its own plants, Steve and Lisa started selling leftovers to other nurseries, a move that has turned into a 12-month season. Some of their bushes end up in large national retail stores and with landscapers.
Steve called it an economic move that allows them a steadier income. "It takes the up and down bumps of agriculture and smoothes them out," he said.
'You mean you sell blueberries?'
There's nothing casual about The Blueberry Patch's transformation. While Steve was busy tending to production, Lisa was taking creative control of a completely new facet of the operation.
She started small, selling frozen blueberries out of the original greenhouse, and then added some pottery and garden accessories. "The more hard goods we brought in, the more customers wanted," she said. The greenhouse eventually became a gift shop, and business took off, with many of the site's buildings now used for something totally different from their original intentions.
Visitors can enjoy a salad topped with blueberry vinaigrette dressing or some lemon blueberry bread and wash it all down with a glass of blueberry iced tea at the Blossoms Café and Tea Room, one of the Beilsteins' newest ventures. With a menu of soups, sandwiches, salads, drinks, desserts and pastries with, of course, blueberries sprinkled throughout, the European garden-style café is just another reason for folks to come out and witness both time and worries slowly melting away in an atmosphere that has increasingly become a destination experience.
The amazing part of the transformation is the fact that some customers don't even recognize the farm's main function. "We'll have people come in the shop and say `Oh, I didn't know you had blueberries, I thought you were just a gift shop,' or we'll have people just get blueberries and leave," Lisa said. "We're so diversified it takes people a while to learn what all we offer."
Something for everyone
Allowing for even more change and growth, the Beilsteins recently launched an online ordering system where plants, jams, sauces, recipes, gift boxes and more may be purchased.
In addition to a lot of blueberries, the Beilsteins said they want customers to take home an experience that they couldn't get anyplace else. "It's more and more difficult to find a Mom and Pop place that's fun and has something unique, and we're always going to stay on that track," Steve said. "We want people to come back and say, `Let's see what Lisa and Steve have cooked up now.'"
One thing's for sure; they've cooked up a recipe for success, and it's the one thing around the place nobody wants them to change.
Where to Visit
The Blueberry Patch
1285 West Hanley Road
Mansfield, OH 44904
Worth the wait
Commercial blueberry production can be a lucrative venture, if you have the patience for it. Steve Beilstein said it takes up to five years to get a viable commercial crop after planting a two-year-old bush in the ground. He said demand for blueberries is high due to the good press they receive for their health benefits.
According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, blueberries contain a number of substances that provide health benefits including fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. The natural antioxidants found in blueberries, such as vitamins C and E, may help prevent/delay diseases such as cancer and heart disease and slow the aging process. The United States Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging says blueberries are among the fruits with the highest antioxidant activity. In addition, researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey have identified compounds in blueberries that promote urinary tract health and reduce the risk of infection.
If you’d like to pick your own blueberries, the Beilsteins offer the following tips and suggestions.
It’s hot, normally 80 to 90 degrees during the picking season, and it could take up to two hours to pick. Try picking in the early morning or in the evening. Overcast days also work well.
Steve said the person who keeps picking at one bush will cut their picking time in half and end up with a better bucket of berries compared to the person who hops from bush to bush looking for the best ones.
It takes about a half-hour to fill a six-pound bucket with berries in mid-season.
Steve said berries are freshest within one hour of being picked. “Until you eat blueberries straight off the bush, you haven’t tasted a blueberry,” he said.