Sand Hill Berries grows blackberries, blueberries, red and black currants, gooseberries, kiwi berries, black raspberries, golden raspberries, red raspberries and strawberries. What's more, Sand Hill Berries knows just what to do with these luscious fruits. Sand Hill Berries is owned and operated by sisters Susan Lynn and Amy Schilling and their husbands Rick Lynn and Rob Schilling.
Robert Blosser and Ramon Orozco make certain to properly lay the mulch for the strawberry crop, while Jay Brown drives the tractor.
PHOTOS BY BOB FERGUSON.
"I've tried just about every value-added venue I can think of," says chief grower Susan Lynn. The farm processes the fruit into barbecue sauces, cordials, conserves, jams, jellies, sauces, syrups, vinegars and vinaigrettes; bakes cheesecakes, cookies and fruit pies daily; freezes the berries and pies for out-of-season sales; hosts weddings; sponsors and participates in festivals in addition to its own annual open house; and more. "We take fruit to a higher level," says Susan's husband, Rick. Sand Hill Berries' sister operation, Greendance Winery, certainly reaches heights with its fruit wines.
It all began with berry production. In 1981 Susan and Rick acquired 150 acres near Mount Pleasant in southwestern Pennsylvania, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh. The land had been used for a dairy farm and then crop growing, followed by a dormant period that spawned numerous weeds, plus wild roses and blackberries. After spending years clearing the land and amending the soil, the opportunity arose to purchase thousands of tissue-cultured raspberry plants at an attractive price.
Susan Lynn inspects wine grapes for bird or insect damage.
In 1986, 5 acres of red raspberries and 2 acres of black raspberries blossomed on the fields and were harvested the following year. A drought promoted the installation of drip irrigation in 1989. The family systematically added additional berry species, heirloom apples, pears, persimmons and plums.
At first Sand Hill Berries targeted gourmet wholesale markets, reaching fine dining establishments and White House state dinners. However, given the unpredictable weather and the desire to make full use of the highly perishable berries, they consolidated their diverse talents and delved into numerous value-added ventures.
Preserving and baking has been a longstanding tradition for the sisters. Starting with the gourmet retailing success of their Raspberry Claret in 1991, they continuously developed pantry items to capture the essence of fresh fruit at its peak. Jams and jellies in batches of five to eight jars ensure a just-picked flavor. Many of their creations originate from old recipes and are prepared on the premises in a fully equipped and licensed facility. They now offer over two dozen fruit concoctions.
Pies, cheesecakes and cookies, baked daily, satisfy tastes from homey to sophisticated. Pies are made with fresh fruit complemented by almonds, chocolate, cinnamon, cream cheese, honey cream, nutmeg, sour cream, walnuts and more. Freshly baked pumpkin and Dutch apple pies herald the holidays, and frozen double-crust pies are shipped throughout the winter.
With all of the farm's success, the Sand Hill Berries family still yearned for more. Recognizing that the loftiest use for their small fruit would be pure fruit wines, planning began. They discovered winemakers Walter and Roxanne Vinoski, who shared the family's zeal for quality. The partnership with the Vinoskis was effected, and once regulatory hurdles for wine production and sales were overcome, Greendance Winery opened in 2007.
About 6 acres of hybrid vinifera grapes help provide a full-spectrum wine list. Greendance Winery offers over 40 wines, from cabernet sauvignon to white zinfandel, from black currant port to wild blueberry, from chardonnay to maréchal foch. The winery has garnered about 70 industry awards.
Rick says the name "Greendance" aptly characterizes agriculture ventures. "Agriculture is a dance with weather, insects, laws [and] chemicals," he explains.
For example, the currant borer has no pheromone control available in the U.S., and the white pine blister rust fungus lacks a labeled fungicide. Hence, plants yield only a quarter of their potential. That includes the Scottish variety Ben Lomond. Consequently, management involves burning the plants every four years. Black currants, which possess both high acid and Brix, are important for some wines.
"Birds are a terrible problem," Susan reports. Without netting, grackles and starlings can devastate a grape crop. Dry weather intensifies the problem. Black raspberries require a human presence to keep birds away. Blueberry yields increase by a factor of 10 when netting is used. When picking blackberries, pickers must stand inside the nets or birds will feast on the crop. Susan notes that each bird species has a specific fruit color preference. For example, robins go after strawberries.
Lewis Lynn, Rick's 90-year old father, carefully guides a Korvan harvester across the trellised berries. It can be adjusted while operating. This 15-year-old equipment is similar to Oxbo's current line of berry harvesters.
Other challenges, including Phytophthora, nematodes, the spotted wing drosophila, drought, frost and freeze damage, stinkbugs and many more, demand careful management and often a bit of luck. This year's hot June temperatures intensified a labor shortage. One of Sand Hill Berries' steady workers usually brings migrants from Florida, but this year's earlier-than-normal ripening kept workers busy elsewhere, so product was lost. Since much of production is slated for fresh markets, where quality is paramount, the farm avoids mechanical harvesting except in an emergency or for wine production. The extreme heat further stressed the operation - the berries overripened, limiting their use.
Like many other fruit growers this spring, extreme temperature fluctuations caused considerable damage. Due to early warm temps, which forced blossoming, and the subsequent nights below freezing, the farm's pears and plums succumbed, along with half the apples. In addition, the first raspberries, the Prelude variety, were decimated; at least 20 percent of the red currants were lost, and the gooseberries suffered partial damage.
Still, Sand Hill Berries mitigates the vagaries of weather with the latest season extension techniques. For instance, the rotating cross-arm trellis and cane training method allows blackberry canopies to lie close to the ground, where row covers can then moderate cold temperatures. This innovation permits blackberries to grow in cooler climates by preventing winter dieback. The system also manipulates the canes and trellis to capture the sun's rays at optimum stages.
Variety selection also plays a part in extending the growing season as breeders develop earlier and later maturing varieties. Improved disease-resistant cultivars often mean a reduction in pesticides as well. Sand Hill Berries keeps abreast of developments, and employs sustainable growing methods to conserve and improve the soil and minimize pesticides. Grass strips between rows prevent erosion. Plastic mulch and drip irrigation minimize water usage.
The attention to detail and quality in growing and post-harvest handling have helped build Sand Hill Berries' reputation and success. The fruit is put into coolers that extract the field heat in 30 minutes to 28 degrees Fahrenheit, which helps to maintain freshness and extend shelf life. Warm outerwear is required for crew members while working in the sorting room.
Sand Hill Berries employed 12 to 15 pickers when selling fruit wholesale. Now only about five are needed. "Processing the fruit also smooths the workload," Susan notes. In addition, planting is timed to space production.
Processing and the myriad other value-added activities require marketing. Besides the farm store, Sand Hill Berries sells fresh berries, pantry items and pies at about a dozen farmers' markets in suburban and downtown Pittsburgh.
Local festivals offer opportunities for sales and to cultivate customers for repeat business.
Held the last weekend in October, Sand Hill Berries' two-day open house draws 4,000 to 5,000 people. The winery also hosts educational and musical events, mostly during the summer months when the outdoor cafe offers a light lunch plus frequent guest chef luncheons.
Lewis and Rick Lynn with machine-harvested currants.
Community involvement includes providing all the pies for a church meal attended by 600.
Josh Bair, a longtime employee, is expanding Sand Hill Berries' presence in social media. There's also the website (www.sandhillberries.com), where customers can order frozen berries and pies. There's also a link to the winery (www.greendancewinery.com). Every state has different regulations regarding wine, but it can be shipped to many states.
Susan handles the office and production operations, while Amy specializes in events and food preparation. Rob supervises the farmers' markets and other markets. While not taking care of patients at a local hospital, Dr. Rick Lynn lends his expertise with wine and variety selection. They all work together to make it a success. Rick says, "When it's grape crushing time, it's all hands on deck."
The author is a writer-researcher specializing in agriculture. She currently resides in central Pennsylvania.