The Secret Life of this American Blueberry

This article was featured in the Spring Issue of Edible Shasta-Butte Magazine, 2016

What do Alexander Von Humboldt, a bumblebee queen, and a pair of Cooper’s hawks all have in common? They’re imperative to the success of Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm. Down a long, winding, often dusty Forest Ranch road, are eight and a half acres of blueberry bounty owned by Armen and John Carlon.

The two met in a college beekeeping class. “I was looking for a class to fill in, flipping through the paper catalog, and I found the Ag page, and beekeeping sounded interesting so I signed up for the class and I met John,” Armen laughs. “We went up to the park with a bunch of people at the end of the semester and went swimming in upper Bidwell Park and that was kind of our first date.” When Armen and John decided they wanted to start a farm of their own, an economic unit of blueberries was ten acres, and property in Forest Ranch was deemed the most affordable soil in Butte County. Both actively involved with starting the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, they had noticed that blueberries from the Chico State Farm were a popular and sought after seasonal treat. 

John Carlon, photo by Sara Calvosa Olson

John Carlon, photo by Sara Calvosa Olson

There are only two commercial crops that are native to North America, blueberries and cranberries. They both evolved on this continent, though they have cousins in other parts of the world. The Carlons’ blueberries thrive in iron rich, volcanic, acidic soil, and their success depends upon the delicate life cycle of the ecosystem on the farm. And since blueberries are generally grown at higher latitudes, John Carlon took inspiration and notes from the 18th century geographer, naturalist, and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt: he utilized altitude as a substitute for latitude and deemed Forest Ranch property a good place to grow blueberries.

Blueberries were a staple of Native Americans back East, and up until 1911 the berries were still harvested solely in the wild. Frederick Coville, a US Department of Agriculture botanist, discovered the secret to blueberry cultivation—they must be grown in moist, acidic soil. He also discovered that blueberries do not self-fertilize, they require cross-pollination; and so enters the bumblebee queen. When flower buds open up, they expose ten to fifteen flowers within, and each flower can become a blueberry. Every single one of those flowers has to be visited by a bee, up to ten million flowers per acre! Just doing the math on the number of bees needed and the amount of activity they must generate means a successful blueberry farm needs a mighty swarm of buzzing bees—somewhere around 40,000 bees John estimates for his acreage.

There is a limited amount of time that the flowers remain viable, and many farmers saturate their blooming fields with honeybees. But with concerns about colony collapse and the expense involved, the Carlons decided to let native bumblebees pollinate their crop instead.

“My little passion with this thing—we’re trying to grow the blueberries without any off-farm inputs,” explains John. In other words, they’re trying not to buy anything for the crop, organic or otherwise. As we walk down the rows, we can see prunings on the ground between the rows. Digging down through the spongy earth and pruning debris we see layer after layer of old blueberry canes in varying stages of decomposition. “We get a lot of rain up here. We can get three inches in twenty-four hours. And the idea is that all the rain just soaks into the ground, it doesn’t run off.” So the pruned canes, grass, and vegetation all work together to re-charge the localized shallow aquifer that waters the crop.

The Carlons don’t use any fertilizer or compost. The soil bacteria, fungi, and microbes take nitrogen out of the atmosphere, sequester it, and make it bio-available. “We haven’t put on any fertilizer of any kind for fourteen years,” says John. I tread carefully through the rows, avoiding little gopher holes and mounds in the ground. “Hey, these gopher holes are actually really important to this farm,” he laughs. Bumblebees don’t overwinter as a colony, like honeybees; rather, most die off, while impregnated queens hibernate. It turns out the single best place for a bumblebee queen to hang out in the wintertime is in an abandoned gopher mound.

The boss with a blueberry sour ale after work. Photo by Sara Calvosa Olson

The boss with a blueberry sour ale after work. Photo by Sara Calvosa Olson

The farm is sixty-five acres, and the Carlons cultivate various species of blueberry on eight and a half acres. All the native plants and wild areas around the blueberry bushes provide benefits to the crop. In fact, native bees and manzanita, a relative of the blueberry, conspire in an important benefit. Blooming in the earliest of spring, manzanita produces tiny white bell-shaped flowers that dangle in a little spray, just like blueberries. When the queen bee wakes up from her chilly winter slumber and emerges from her gopher hole, she can gorge on those early-blooming manzanita blossoms. Once there’s enough nectar and pollen, she begins laying eggs and building her community. So when the blueberry flowers all begin to pop at once, these bee families are robust in population and ready to go to work, in perfect phenological harmony.

As the lifecycle of the blueberry farm begins in earnest, bumblebees have emerged and pollinate in waves of buzzing battalions—actually called buzz pollination. As with manzanita, blueberry pollen adheres to very sticky anthers within the bell-shaped flowers. When bumblebees land on blueberry flowers, they grab on and vibrate, the buzz of vibration shaking out the pollen, which adheres to their fuzzy bodies for dropoff at the next flower and bush.

The flowers then begin to evolve and grow into ripe chubby blueberries, the way they have done in North America for millennia. As they ripen on the Carlons’ farm, hungry birds, especially robins, descend upon bushes of berries, intent on having a feast. “The biggest single pest are birds that come and eat the berries,” says John. “We don’t do anything to scare away the birds, we don’t have nets or anything like that.” But it turns out that there is a natural predator of robins, the Cooper’s hawk. On the Carlon farm, a pair of Cooper’s hawks have moved in, completely changing the birds’ feeding behavior and drastically cutting back on lost berries every year. The hawks perch in the tall pines, calling to each other and alerting birds in the vicinity to their presence, and lest a hungry robin wants to risk getting caught and devoured middair, it daren’t chance any blueberry snacking. John is clearly tickled by this natural solution to the robin problem.

Keeping the Cooper’s hawks happy is another crucial element in the lifecycle of the farm. We wander to a pile of brush, disturbing the silence, sending a covey of quail aloft with gentle whirring of wings and pit-pit alarms calls. What better than fat, slow, delicious quail to keep a family of Cooper’s Hawks fed? John keeps these strategic brush piles close to the hawks’ territory to ensure that there is plenty to eat before ripe blueberries call in the robins. That way, the hawks aren’t tempted to look for real estate anywhere else.

After such oversight by the Cooper’s hawks, the Carlons market their harvest as certified organic blueberries, available for a short time during the early summer, including at Chico’s Saturday Farmers’ Market and local groceries. The farm’s certification by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) dates back over twenty years, and yet the Carlons’ operation goes beyond organic. Their berries are the most authentic indicator that a natural, truly organic life cycle is possible, beautiful, and totally delicious.

Sara Calvosa