The furniture is sparse — shelves and a table decorated with succulents, flowers and a stray bottle of hot sauce. But Bernadette Pelissier seems comfortable sitting in one of the few chairs in her trailer’s kitchen, with garden gloves folded in her lap, occasionally pointing out the window as she describes how she ended up here.
A member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, Pelissier had always been interested in agricultural policy. She had grown up with a family tradition of picking blueberries in upstate New York. One day when she and her husband were driving somewhere, he asked her, “If you had extra money, what would you do?”
She told him she would buy a farm and help young people farm.
“And lo and behold, that’s exactly what we’ve done,” she said.
She and her husband, Vann Bennett, bought 92 acres to own Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm. Once they saw the farm, Pelissier and her daughter, Kether Smith, realized they had picked blueberries there before as customers as part of the farm’s U-Pick operation, which allowed customers to pick and pay for blueberries based on the honor system.
“Oh, we love it,” Smith remembers saying upon seeing the farm.
They use three of those acres for their own blueberry bushes, and they lease another 10 acres to Keith and Megan Marshall, the operators of Nourishing Acres. Pelissier’s daughter, son-in-law and son own an adjacent tract of five acres.
The bushes stretch across four acres of the property. Thick branches that have been pruned away line many of the rows of bushes, a sign of the work the family has put into the farm.
After a year and a half of blueberry farming, Pelissier, who was originally just seeking a hobby for retirement, is working with her daughter to turn this passion into a sustainable form of income. Carrying out this objective on an untended farm has proven to be a challenge — but one that is well worth it.
Small farms make up the majority of the more than 50,000 farmsacross the state, but even though they outnumber larger farms, these larger farms still outproduce them, said Blake Brown, an agricultural and resource economist at N.C. State University.
Affording the infrastructure presents a challenge for many small farmers, and they must also strike a balance between employing enough laborers — and paying those laborers — and growing enough acres. Using only in-house labor might not yield enough output, so farmers must reach a scale of production in which they’re employing labor, explained Brown.
“Just getting enough units to actually have a decent income is challenging to get you above the poverty level,” Brown said.
Cedar Grove is looking beyond blueberries to boost revenues. Pelissier and Smith have plans to start a nursery and even make their own hard cider and blueberry wine.
But first, they must prune.
Pelissier knows the perfect blueberry.
It’s not about size, and it has a deep purple color. The taste, of course, is the most important part, and the best blueberries are both sweet and sour. But the sour is more of the undertone that comes before the burst of sweetness.
And it all starts at the bush.
When they bought the property a year and a half ago, the blueberry bushes had been left untended for the last six to eight years, growing to heights of 8 feet — normal bushes are 5 to 6 feet tall — making it impossible to pick the blueberries at the top without a ladder.
The farm sits on what once was two properties. Smith owns a section that once belonged to a nonprofit group. Although the bushes were not left completely untended, they were not well tended.
“There were just people living here,” Smith said. “But they weren’t blueberry people. It wasn’t with malintention.”
The owner of the rest of the property moved and did not leave anyone behind to maintain the land.
Pruning invigorates the bushes, allowing new bursts of growth to spring forth. Abandoning the bushes had also allowed honeysuckle and briars to weave themselves into the blueberry bushes.
The one advantage to an untended farm was that it made it easy to get the blueberries certified as organic because nothing had been put on the them for years:
“Except, as (the owner) put it, ‘What the good Lord allows,’” Pelissier said.
Smith and Pelissier get excited talking about their projects and the new ideas they want to try out. “Oh yeah, another thing!” Pelissier will say as she turns to Smith and starts chatting about their latest venture. Already a close-knit family, they say the farm has given them an added sense of community.
Pelissier’s husband is the chainsaw man, and her 91-year-old father even makes it out to help. He prefers the hand saw, and Smith said he can sometimes be seen napping in the row.
“I think there is something in our blood that draws us,” Smith said.
Smith also has twin 8-year-old sons. Although they’re not too into the work of farming, they don’t mind eating blueberry pancakes —
Pelissier’s favorite dish to make with blueberries. She guesses she puts in about four times as many blueberries as restaurants typically do.
“The dough is just to hold the blueberries together,” she said.
It’s there, like she is, to support that perfect burst of sweetness.