Finding a profitable place in the world
Now that California growers are jumping into the blueberry market, competition is heating up and prices are cooling down. Except for Sandy Newman, owner of Forbidden Fruit Orchards near Lompoc, in northern Santa Barbara County, Calif. She’s combined location and strategy to place herself in a unique market position. Her organic blueberries sell for top dollar because they ripen between October and July—virtually the opposite of almost everyone else’s.
“There’s no money to be made in blueberries any more unless you’re off-season,” Newman says. “If you’re coming in with other states, you’re toast. This year (2009) the price was so bad, I’m probably the only one who made money.”
Newman was born on a small chicken farm in Red Bank, N.J., and began growing vegetables in her grandmother’s garden when she was two years old. She graduated from the University of Delaware with a master’s degree in plant science and was arboretum-trained at Longwood Gardens, just south of Philadelphia, Pa.
She and her husband had been looking for years for a farm they could afford to buy when they found this one, a rundown 100 acres, in 2002. “It had been owned for 20 years by a family who made it into a trash can. As part of the deal, they had to clean it up, but we’re still finding stuff. You’d think there was a brewery here,” she says.
Blueberries were the first crop she planted.
“There was a farm agent in Santa Barbara County who was doing a lot of research for small farms,” she says. “He found that blueberries near the ocean could grow off-season. They’re difficult to grow, which intrigued me. Organic was harder. I was concerned about the market share. I knew I could make more money with them.”
She first planted two acres with traditional varieties, Misty and Sharp Blue, on a southern slope under frost protection. “I knew they grew and produced. They were a safeguard.”
Unlike blueberries that are grown in the rest of California, which produce from April to August and go dormant in the winter, berries along the central and southern coast produce fruit from October to July. After learning that her plants stayed evergreen, she planted another four acres, this time with patented varieties.
Forbidden Fruit Orchards is about 15 miles from the ocean, at the western edge of the Santa Rita Hills, in pinot noir country—where the movie Sideways was filmed.
“My blueberries can see the ocean,” Newman says. The cool ocean climate gives them two advantages. First, it allows them to hang and ripen slowly. This very long ripening hang time gives them a unique taste compared to blueberries grown elsewhere while maintaining their crispness, the same way it does for the pinot noir grapes that grow there.
In the Santa Rita Hills, there’s a lot of pinot noir, she says. “I have pinot on my property. The grapes hang a long time because it stays so cool. Our fruit hangs for days, sometimes for a week in the winter. In the San Joaquin Valley (California’s top agricultural producing region) temperatures climb to the 90s and 100s, and the fruit ripens in hours.”
The second advantage is that the moderate temperatures stop the plants from going dormant, which allows them to produce off-season. They can even go dormant in Buellton, 15 miles away, which gets five to seven degrees colder. Those few degrees make all the difference.
“Basically my climate lets me get away with it. We don’t get a lot of frosts that make plants go dormant,” Newman says. In 2007 there was an extreme cold front, though. The plants survived, but they lost the fruit and the flowers. She uses overhead sprinklers, which protect the plants down to temperatures around 27 or 28 degrees.
She grows southern highbush varieties, all chosen based on their performance in her microclimate. “I’m still maximizing it,” she says. “There’s one variety I’m not happy with and am slowly removing. Everyone grows that variety and loves it, but it’s not perfect for me.” It comes in heavy at the same time that San Joaquin Valley blueberries do, and once the San Joaquin market comes in, it’s extremely hard to compete with them pricewise, she says. She tries to target plants to come in heavy before they do, and she stops picking for some of her customers when prices fall too low. Her foundation customers are willing to pay more for the fruit because they appreciate the quality.
“Other people are volume growers. I think the other way: grow less on-season, more off. That way I can keep my quality higher.”
Soil, water and pest management
Blueberry plants can’t metabolize the iron in soils unless the pH is low, around 5. The natural soil in the Forbidden Fruit Orchards area is around 7.3 pH, which is relatively neutral. It’s also very sandy, and while sandy soil provides excellent drainage, it doesn’t provide any buffering, which makes it hard to lower the pH, Newman says. Her soil has a pH of about 6 to 6.2.
Traditionally, large growers acidify the soil by injecting phosphoric, sulfuric or urea sulfuric acids in the irrigation lines. They’re toxic and require special handling and equipment.
“I can pull it off without doing that, but I’m doing it the hard way. It costs more money, but it works because I’m small,” she says.
At first she injected citric acid. The pH went down while the plants were being irrigated, but it went back up when the watering stopped, so she stopped using it. She also used a lot of Tiger sulfur, a pelleted source of sulfur.
She still uses some Tiger sulfur. “It helps a little bit,” she says. She’s diligent in adding chelates, which make metal ions more available for uptake by plants, and she injects fish emulsion in the driplines, which builds up microorganisms that break down the organic fertilizers.
“I pretty well do everything foliar for whatever the plants are deficient in – iron, zinc, copper. It costs more, but it’s easier.”
The sandy soil is also an erosion problem. She uses manure from her own horses as compost. She puts it on in July when the plants are being pruned and stops 90 days before the harvest starts. She buys mulch from the county, which collects green waste from residents. “Farmers can get it cheap, and they deliver,” she says.
She uses drip irrigation. Blueberries are very unusual in that they don’t translocate water from side to side, she says. You have to have irrigation lines on both sides of the plants, so you need twice the number of lines. They use tensiometers to help manage the fields, along with visual observation. The frequency of irrigation depends on the temperature and the leaf surface area.
“Of course we have pests,” she says. “We’re an organic farm. It’s very labor-intensive, having to trap gophers and weed by hand. I have two full-time people off-season just to maintain the blueberry field.” It takes about two hours every morning to trap gophers in every field. She uses vinegar on weeds; the microbial insecticide Semispore on grasshoppers; Sluggo on snails; and Pyganic, a chrysanthemum-based insecticide, and m-Pede, an insecticidal soap, to control ants and aphids. She’s planning to try a new product, an orange extract called Oroboost, on fungi.
Harvest and markets
The harvesting is also done by hand, with contract labor. “If there’s a hot spell, I need a lot of people. I can get 30 to 35 in a day,” she says.
In addition to the fruit, she sells blueberry jam made with her own blueberries, and honey that comes from the blueberry flowers, orchids, lavenders and wildflowers on the farm. She sells the blueberries to a wholesaler, Earl’s Organics, which distributes the fruit in the San Francisco area to numerous small and medium-size stores and a few chain stores, such as New Frontiers. “We sell direct to Gelson’s. It’s very farmer-friendly,” she says, “and a little to Whole Foods.”
She began selling at farmers’ markets last February, and now sells hundreds of flats in five of them throughout central and southern California. “It makes a huge difference getting some of the fruit sold at retail prices instead of wholesale,” she says.
Blueberries aren’t the only crop Newman has taken a chance on. Forbidden Fruit Orchards specializes in off-season and unusual fruits.
She planted a trial of about 300 Camellia sinensis bushes for fresh dried green tea about three years ago. “It’s extremely difficult,” she says. “They like it hot and humid. I might take them out of organics.”
She’s growing six and one-third acres of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, which she’s planning to craft into wines next year under the label “Cebada”, the road that leads to her farm. She also has young sweet cherry, Haas avocado and mulberry trees, as well as currants, gooseberries and kiwis, which she’s hoping to bring into commercial production.
“Blueberries are all-consuming, but I like to grow other things, too,” she says. “I get bored and need challenges.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.