Book Review: The Blueberry Years by Jim Minick

Earlier this year I was in Oxford, Mississippi.  It was a beautiful spring morning and I was a little early for my scheduled talk on fruit crops.  Since the weather was so nice and it had been quite some time since I had visited Oxford, I decided to walk downtown and take a look around the square.  I had two goals in mind – find the Square Books bookstore and to get a cup of coffee.  Luckily, I was able to do both.

While perusing the titles at Square Books, I came across one that interested me.  It was called “The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family”.  On the cover was a notification that this book was also a winner of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) best nonfiction book award.  I thumbed through the book, read the laudatory blurbs on the cover, and decided to purchase the book.  Memoirs on specialty crop farming are rare, so I thought I would give this one a try.

The author of this book, Jim Minick, teaches at Radford University, so he is a highly educated man.  I found his writing to be engaging for the most part; yet, overly romanticized the experience of being a blueberry grower.  For example, he described growing blueberries as being in

“…the church of Vaccinium corymbosum, the high order of the highbush, with Berkeley and Nelson serving as deacons, Blueray and Bluecrop members of the choir, and Spartan and Patriot the ushers for the day.”

Although I understood his exuberance at becoming a grower of blueberries, I found this type of saccharine description too much.  He also invoked words from writers John Keats and Henry David Thoreau to convey the feeling of being a blueberry grower. This is the weakest part of the book, too much romance spent on a task that is not at all romantic.  The idealization of farming is something that someone without any experience does (and I see this all the time with new growers) and it shows in this book.  However, with that being said, I give the author credit for moving beyond the romance and into the reality.  In fact, he does it slowly and skillfully as if the reader is watching a shooting star come into sight, burn brightly, then die, leaving a trail of memories in its wake.

Initially, Jim, and his wife Sarah, are drawn to a simpler life and thus want to be more in control of their own lives.  The author states:

“We want to write and make baskets, grow most of our own food, and follow a dream we call homesteading. The farm, we hope, will allow this, and the berries will be our cash crop, our money-maker to pay taxes and other expenses.”

As his family had grown blueberries in the past, Sarah considered Jim an expert in his ability to make blueberries their cash crop.  He said,

“I think I bleed blue” and

“Genetically, it seems, blueberries have flowed in my family’s blood for several generations.”

These statements seem plausible until the reader finds out that his family members were never blueberry farmers, but rather had ¼ of an acre.  At this point I saw his delusion clearly, but it took some time before he saw it too.

Even though I could read between the lines at how the story was going to eventually end, the writing achieves a certain story telling coziness, as if the reader were sitting in front of the fireplace listening to an uncle recount a story of the Dust Bowl.  Romance becomes matter-of-fact, but still told with a twinkle of both love and regret.

Slowly, Jim comes to realize that:

“…the answers I searched for often could come only from the field itself and those of us trying to make it something blue, but I didn’t know this at the time.  The manuals and experts offered general tips, or told about how they approached a similar problem, but no book could ever be written to tell a farmer how to farm a specific field.”

His comprehension of his new situation is well told.  Not all growers come to understand it as well.  The field is the teacher and you are the student.  The field must be earnestly studied, because it is an ever changing entity.  It is a life-long learning course and no one can answer its questions as good as its owner.  Once Jim and his wife realize this, their efforts really take off and the field becomes something extraordinary.  They begin to see everything in a different way.  One day they have an entomologist visit and he looks the bushes over,

“…bush by bush, leaf and berry and twig…”, finding “…a world full of beneficial bugs.”

They are able to see that every bush has its very own environment and needs to be treated as such.  It was a turning point to their subsequent management.

The author obviously did quite a bit of research on the history of blueberries as well, citing the work of Dr. Frederick Coville as well as Elizabeth White.  If only he had done as much work upfront before he planted the bushes.  Now perhaps he did not go into all the details of the pre-plant investigations that were done and, to be fair, this was before the Internet era.  But as an Extension Specialist, I found it disheartening (yet, not surprising) that he did not forge a strong relationship with his local county extension agent – at least the details of that relationship were suppressed in the book.  An Extension agent could have helped with many aspects of things they struggled with in the beginning, and at the end.

Jim and Sarah are drawn to organically growing the bushes. Jim writes a meditation on organics which I found down-to-earth and refreshing.  It is steeped in reality.  Although a believer in an organic system, he correctly states that,

“Organic does not necessarily mean that the food was grown in an ecologically, energetically, or socially sustainable way…” and that many organically grown foods are still done in a “…monoculture.”

To sum it all up he makes a statement that effectively sums up the whole organic food movement:

“So maybe farming organically is getting to the heart of a healthy food system.  But we still have a ways to go.”

Even though he puts organics in perspective, many of his customers are more zealous.  Jim finds that instead of just growing blueberries, he has gotten into the business of religion.

“The religion is “organic” and whether we like it or not, we’ve created this house of worship.”

He finds himself somewhat torn between the reality and the perception, which I found to be a nice parallel between his reality and initial perception of being a blueberry grower.  It is a joy to watch the development of Jim and Sarah as blueberry growers.  They start from ground zero and grow into competent, no, excellent growers in a matter of a couple years.  They have the verve and desire to learn and that is what keeps them going despite the setbacks.  And there are setbacks.

Like many growers in Mississippi this past year, a late spring freeze was a harsh reality for Jim and Sarah.  They experienced a nearly total “crop failure” leading to “…an empty field, an empty cash drawer, and a row of empty buckets.”  They were reduced watching the temperature drop and drop and drop as the set flowers buckled under the cold.

“We do the only thing we can: bundle up to worry and watch.”

This devastating freeze event eventually led to the end of Jim and Sarah as blueberry growers.  It caused them to do some soul-searching about the blueberry business.  In the end they were able to,

“…learn from this field of berries that sometimes beauty and business don’t mix…”

In the beginning the author stated that their desire was to homestead and live off of the earnings of their blueberry field.  One of the great mistakes they made was not understanding how many acres they needed to make that a reality.  From the very first page I knew this, but it took the author almost 300 pages to figure it out.  This is an example of where Cooperative Extension could have helped in a substantial way.  One question could have led to a much different outcome.

“And even though our acre field is four times larger than this Pennsylvania one, it is still not enough.  We needed at least four acres of blueberries, I realize now.  Four acres to provide enough income to stay home, work where we live, and be real farmers.  That size of a dream I never had imagined, never planned for, never knew we needed.”

Unfortunately, the failings lie on both sides.  His, for not doing enough research to discover Cooperative Extension and ask the right questions, but also Cooperative Extension for not making itself more well-known.  I know this is a common lament of Cooperative Extension.

My favorite part of the book came when Jim finally realized that his one-acre blueberry patch was just a hobby farm.  During most of the time he took offense at the idea he was a “hobby farmer.”

“Both hobby farm and farmette imply a certain luxury, activities done in the spare time afforded by wealth made as some off-farm job.  For years I knew I did not live on a farmette and I was not a hobby farmer.”

But both he and his wife had other jobs that supported his little farm.  He just could not recognize it or didn’t want to accept it.  In the end though, he came to the conclusion that he was indeed a hobby farmer.  What else could a blueberry grower with one acre of plants be?  Jim eloquently ends his dream of being a blueberry grower by stating,

“It’s okay to quit a cherished dream, especially if quitting opens such a wide door to more time to write and to hike the wooded hills that surround us on our new farm.”

Sometimes, he states, that one can love, “…the idea of being a blueberry farmer more than the reality and all its demands.”

I won’t give away the whole story, because it is worth reading and giving some thought.  It is a very good recollection of what it takes to be a successful blueberry grower – at least on a small scale – although he could have been even better with a little more help.  There are a couple small errors that distracted me a little, but probably won’t most readers (for example, tendrils and roots are not the same thing, and Southern Highbush blueberries are comprised of multiple species, not just Vaccinium darrowii).

Overall, I thought the book was well done and worth my time to read it.  I think you would find it worth yours as well.