An abundance of blueberries
Blueberries, like all the other crops growing in this area, have benefited from this exceptionally warm weather and have come on early this year. At Hansell’s Berry Farm on Route 14 between Gillett and Fassett the blueberries are in abundance. And in spite of the heat and the drought, they are not only large, but very juicy and sweet.
On ten acres of blueberry fields, the Hansell’s family operated farm has 6,000 blueberry bushes. They offer four different varieties for U-pick as well as quarts of already picked berries for sale along with homemade blueberry jam when available. The different varieties ripen close together but at slightly different times. The Northland berries are the earliest; then the blue crop and blue jay ripen; and the blue ray berries are the last to appear. Their ripening times are so close that all the varieties are usually available throughout the season. The Northland is a smaller sweeter berry.
“They’re my favorite,” said Sharon Hansell, co-owner with her son, Bill Hansell. “They’re the most similar to the wild berries.”
Normally the Hansells begin their season the third weekend in July, but this year they opened early on July 6.
“The thing we have to worry about is the hot weather,” said Sharon Hansell, but in spite of the heat, this year’s crop is larger and more plentiful. In the cool of the early morning, they have the most berry pickers. Even on the hottest days these last few weeks, the early mornings and evenings have been cool enough to pick.
Hansell’s Berry Farm was started in 1978 by Bill Hansell’s parents, and as Bill and his sister Jennifer grew up, berry picking and planting new bushes became a way of life for them. Now, Bill and his wife Aimee and their children, Allyson, Olivia, Wyatt, and Adrianna all work the farm along with Sharon. During the height of the season, Sharon’s sisters, Connie Kern, Sandy Rusk, and Peggy Landon come to help out as well. It has become a three generation family operation.
But Hansell’s Berry Farm wasn’t always as big as it is today. They started with 500 plants their first year.
“They were just little seedlings,” Sharon said. It took about five years for them to produce. Sharon continued to tell of the lesson they learned, realizing they should be planting larger plants. “For about five more years, we bought 1,000 plants each time. They were one or two years old and easier to plant.”
Those first 500 plants finally produced 25 quarts in their first real production year.
“We cherished them!” said Sharon, thinking how today, in a good year, those 500 plants can produce at least 1,000 pounds of berries!
When the Hansells first started their farm, everything was done by hand. They had an old Farmall tractor, but all of the fields had to be cleared before the bushes could be planted. They picked out the rocks by hand. Sharon and Jennifer didn’t like it when they found a snake hiding under a rock, even though it was quite harmless! All of the berry picking was done by hand.
Later, as the farm grew, the Hansells introduced a mechanical hand picker to their production. It vibrated to help pick the berries, but they discovered it was faster to just pick by hand like they used to do.
Today, they have some mechanical harvesting. A tractor pulls a mechanical harvester that runs over the berry bushes, while paddles knock the berries onto a conveyor belt. Two people are on board to collect the berries into a lug. This process does not hurt the berry bushes in any way.
In the early 1990’s they installed an irrigation system that runs from their pond to three of the fields. This is very helpful, especially in a drought year.
Also in the 1990’s they discovered that the U-pickers didn’t come as fast as the berries ripened. They found other outlets to sell their berries, starting with Tops and Wegman’s in Elmira, and later selling berries to the wineries. Their helpers had to pick and pack. Today Woody’s in Gillett sells their berries, and several jam makers buy their berries. “Conifer Corners” in Factoryville and “Jam it Up” just west of Williamsport use their berries to make jam.
“We don’t get as many pickers as we used to,” Sharon said. “It seems that people don’t have the time to pick. They buy them already picked.” She added that even though they get people of all ages who come to pick, she noticed that it was the older people who were the berry pickers. It’s the small kids who like to ride on the special bus, the “Blueberry Express” that transports those who don’t want to or can’t walk to the far areas of the fields. Sandy makes it a fun ride for kids of all ages.
The Hansells freeze many of the berries they pick to make them available through the winter to the jam makers and other people who want to buy them frozen, who might have run out for their own jam making and other baking.
Each season brings something different in the world of blueberries. The longest season the Hansells remember lasted three months. Their shortest was three days. The average season lasts about two to four weeks. The year that they were opened for three months, the bushes produced 20,000 pounds, just from the U-pickers! The year their picking season was only three days was because deer had eaten the new growth in the spring. That was another lesson learned. Now they have a solar electric fence around the berry fields to prevent animals from getting in. It works most of the time, according to Aimee. And for those of you who have read Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClosky, you won’t have to worry about bears either.
“Mostly word of mouth is what tells people how good the year is,” Aimee said. “Our location has always been good. We’re easy to find.”
It isn’t just their location that makes them a very special place to pick berries. The Hansells are very accommodating to their customers. Those coming to U-pick are given a blue bucket, lined with a plastic bag with handles. A spare bag is included in the bucket, with the assumption someone will be picking more than one bagful. Even more convenient are the red buckets in the fields containing extra plastic bags.
“We’ve had some pickers who have picked over a hundred pounds!” Sharon said. “We’ve even had some families who come up for a picnic before or after picking!”
Along with the “Blueberry Express”, tables are set up in the fields holding water coolers and cups for the pickers. The Hansells are constantly available to offer help and make sure everyone is alright. They take the pickers’ filled bags, label them with their names, and place them in the cool garage, which is where people pay for the berries.
“The berries are great! I went three times,” said Rose Harley. “I made two blueberry pies which I got real good comments on.”
It is a sad sign of our changing times that people don’t have the time for some good old fashioned berry picking. But the Hansell’s Berry Farm has something for everyone and their motto is “Keep on Pickin’!”
There’s still time to pick; there’s still lots of berries! And don’t forget how delicious that fresh blueberry pie is going to taste!