In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.
In the expansive annals of accidental enterprises, the Rev. Arnold Brown certainly deserves a noteworthy place.
From a few blueberry bushes his family planted in 1990 by the pond below their house in the hills of Craftsbury, something to keep him occupied in retirement and provide tasty summer treats, the blueberry patch has grown into, well, a berry good business. That’s what happens when you end up with 2,000 blueberry bushes.
You could say the whole thing kind of grew out of control, and you’d be right. “It was just to be a little family patch. It wasn’t intended to be commercial,” explains Rev. Brown’s daughter Belinda.
A tasty story has unfolded here over the years on this open hillside far above Route 14, aptly illustrating the old saw about God working in mysterious ways.
For 25 years, Rev. Brown was pastor of the United Church on Craftsbury Common and also worked for the U.S. immigration service. (In addition, he spent 10 years in South Dakota ministering on Indian reservations and years in Kenya, which is a whole ‘nother story.) When he retired as pastor, he moved one hill over from the Common, west to Coburn Hill to an old farmhouse and 39 acres where he could gaze out at a lovely view of the church’s iconic white steeple.
Looking for some income in his retirement, he decided to go into Christmas tree farming and planted 7,500 seedlings. A neighbor trying to be helpful decided to aid the reverend by mowing his field. It was an act of generosity that went horribly awry: The friend mowed the wrong field, the one with 7,500 tiny Christmas trees.
“That’s the moment that I said, we should do something else with that land,” says Rev. Brown.
His son-in-law Phil Lovely, manager of the pick-your-own blueberry business (“I married the farmer’s daughter,” he quips), says that incident was a stern test of good will. The good reverend passed the test with characteristic calm.
“He doesn’t swear, even under duress,” swears Lovely, a Waterbury native who is married to Belinda Brown and lives three miles away.
So Rev. Brown came up with a Plan B. Deciding the acidic soils of Vermont and the south-facing slope might better be suited to blueberries, he began planting them, 200 bushes a year, arrayed in an orderly grid on the steeply rising hill behind his house. Today, highbush varieties such as Jersey, Patriot, Coville and Bluecrop offer summer’s largesse amidst an unbelievable wealth of heavily laden branches, filled with plump clusters of berries in all shades from dark and dusty blue to yet-to-ripen greenish white and pale reds.
If the ripe succulent tomato is Vermont’s all-too-brief rock star of the summer garden, a fickle and temperamental creature, the blueberry, by contrast, is a hardy low-maintenance performer and easy keeper, one that sings its sweet/tart tune with Vermont’s famed trio of strawberries and raspberries. The Browns are hardly alone in paying homage: Vermont has dozens of pick-your-own blueberry farms from north to south, (log on to http://www.pickyourown.org/VT.htm.), which draw faithful berry devotees.
Last year provided a bumper crop of the much-praised relative of the cranberry, high in healthy anti-oxidants, vitamin C and perfect for pies, buckles, slumps, cakes, jams and syrups, freezing or dropping into cereal. This year another bumper crop of blueberries is ripening and will entice fans into late August.
One variety Rev. Brown planted, Coville, is named after Dr. Frederick Coville, a U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist who is credited with first cultivating the wild blueberry, which is indigenous to North America. He worked in the early 1900s with Elizabeth White, the daughter of a New Jersey farmer who collected hundreds of wild blueberry plants to find the best for cross-breeding.
By the 1930s a blueberry boom had begun as new varieties by the dozens were being produced – including one named after a Vermonter. George McMillan Darrow, a horticulturist born in 1889 on a dairy farm in Springfield, went to Middlebury College and then Cornell University. He became a famed expert on apples and berries in a nearly 50-year career, and the Darrow blueberry is now considered one of the largest, producing berries the diameter of a nickel.
On a recent sunny weekday, the traffic coming to Brown’s Beautiful Blueberries was steady, revealing not only a thriving family enterprise but a cherished summer gathering spot. Rev. Brown’s daughter Gretchen, who comes with family from her home in Portland, Ore., to help each year during the six-week season, says that was the idea.
“It’s a beautiful spot, and he planned it very nicely,” she says.
It’s a reflection of community in another way too. After his wife Judith died, Rev. Brown had some health problems and the congregation pitched in to help with a bush-mulching bee.
That’s continued as a community tradition.
“It’s become an annual event; it’s worked out pretty well,” says Gretchen.
Now 85, Rev. Brown’s mind is sharp, his eyes soft blue, his theology and politics liberal. Sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair in a comfy breeze, he’s as surprised as anyone at how blueberries have turned into a booming social and moneymaking enterprise.
“I felt it was a good place for blueberries, but I didn’t think it would explode,” he says.
But it has. Lovely, grabbing a late afternoon tomato sandwich lunch in between checking in pick-your-own visitors and handing them bright buckets to take up the hillside, says that on a recent Sunday visitors trucked out with 1,400 pounds of berries. Last year the harvest was around 10 tons. At $2.50 a pound, that pays for property taxes, cultivation expenses, equipment, mowing and more, he says.
Asked if, like home growers, they worry about robins and cedar waxwings feasting on the berry crop, he points out a “raptor box” that Rev. Brown had a Sterling College student build in hopes of enticing a hawk to take up residence. So far, no luck, he says, laughing. In his own view, there are so many berries up on the hill, “It would take the birds out of Hitchcock” to have any impact.
From his perch at the edge of the shaded, busy porch, listening to the bustle of pick-your-own visitors, there’s one more twist to this story, obvious if you notice the long white cane. Thanks to diabetes and other health conditions, Rev. Brown is blind now, and can’t see the steeple or the Northeast Kingdom hillsides that most folks would agree fit the term “God’s country.”
“I don’t like my blindness, but what can you do?” he says.
But in a powerful way, his vision is intact, in the idea that nature’s bounty and the scenic setting would offer a peaceful interlude for folks.
“His vision for this was a quiet place where people could come and enjoy themselves,” says Lovely, who sees that happen every day when the visitors go picking on the hill. “It’s almost a spiritual kind of thing,” he says.