A change of heart leads to a successful operation

John and Crystal Eisenhauer didn’t plan on becoming blueberry farmers. Yet when they found the perfect plot to build their home on, they decided to make use of the mature blueberry bushes in the front part of the property. The Eisenhauers are the third owners of Split Rock Blueberry Farm (http://gotberries.com) in Berwick, Pa.

A father and son out in the hot July sun picking blueberries.

Ideal spot for a homestead

John Eisenhauer grew up 5 miles away from Split Rock Blueberry Farm. In 2002, the Eisenhauers bought the 25.5-acre farm. Initially, Eisenhauer wanted to bulldoze the blueberry bushes in the front of the property to build his home because he didn’t desire a second job as a blueberry farmer. However, his wife, Crystal, talked him into keeping the bushes. Instead, they built their home in the back of the property, leaving the bushes intact and near the road where customers can easily find the pick-your-own farm.

One family picked 7 pounds of blueberries during a hot July afternoon.

Eisenhauer admits that he needed to learn about blueberry farming before he put his shingle out that he was open for business. The couple traveled to Kentucky to learn about blueberry care from a successful blueberry farmer. When they returned to their farm, the Eisenhauers planted some new varieties. Eisenhauer admits he “goes whole hog in something,” so he knew that he when he decided to become a part-time blueberry farmer, he was going to get enmeshed in the project. The Eisenhauers opened for business in the summer of 2003.

Split Rock Blueberry Farm is a U-Pick farm, but that wasn’t always the case. When the Eisenhauers first started out, they picked blueberries to sell to Weis Markets, (www.weismarkets.com) a Pennsylvania-based grocery store chain. Then, they realized that it was more convenient to open a pick-your-own farm rather than having to take care of farm tasks and picking blueberries for the store chain. They continued to pick blueberries for local customers, especially those who were homebound. The Eisenhauers already had delivery arrangements in place with their existing customer base prior to transforming into a pick-your-own operation.

Today, many of their customers are locals, but some have come from as far away as Arizona and Texas and some from New York City. Eisenhauer credits his website, as well as having their local clientele recommend the pick-your-own farm to their guests over the summer.

For the dry summer of 2010, Eisenhauer relied on timed sprinklers to irrigate his blueberry stock. In 2011, the installation of an updated irrigation system will combine the property’s two wells.

Irrigation is key

Eisenhauer emphasizes that blueberries require lots of water for plumpness and flavor. Thus, a good irrigation system is vital to the success of any blueberry farm. He states that irrigation is his biggest issue on his farm and that a sufficient water supply will allow his blueberries to get plumper. “[The blueberries] get bigger and bigger. You can’t overwater a blueberry bush.”

The Eisenhauers have proactively planned to improve their irrigation system for the 2011 picking season. They plan on using two wells that are on the property. They have a well drilled in the front of the property that provides 50 gallons of water per minute, and the well by their home is 200 feet down into the ground and produces 80 gallons a minute. In the spring of 2011, they plan on merging the two wells to provide water for a drip irrigation system. To help defray the costs of this system, the Eisenhauers applied for state funding. “They [the state] pay for a percentage, and we’ll pay a percentage – 70-30 or 80-20 – where the state picks up most of the tab,” explains Eisenhauer.

The sky’s the limit

The porch and barn where customers get their blueberries weighed. The signage welcomes people to Split Rock.

The Eisenhauers are motivated to grow their blueberry business. Currently, they own 8,000 blueberry bushes in two fields, but they plan to expand to four fields over the next couple of years. They want to open a third field in the spring of 2011. Eisenhauer wants to give people who work during the day an opportunity to pick quality blueberries when they visit the farm after work. With the current available fields, it isn’t possible to have enough blueberries for customers who arrive during the “second” shift of pickers between 4 and 6 p.m. “We want to put more fields in so that we can have one field for people who come in the afternoon. That way, everyone has a fair picking,” says Eisenhauer.

At this time, the Eisenhauers don’t use IPM or organic methods due to the need to control weeds and product demand. However, Eisenhauer does use malathion to control insect pests.

The Eisenhauers also sell blueberry nursery stock.

Eisenhauer tries to use as little of the insecticide as possible. He also uses Scotts Roundup for weed control. “I never put [anything] on the field that I wouldn’t eat myself,” Eisenhauer states. “I keep it the best that I can. I keep away birds, bugs or anything else that would carry disease.”

In 2005, Eisenhauer planted a field with 30 varieties of blueberries. It was experimental and will not be ready for the public until 2012 or 2013. Each row in this field will feature a different variety for people to pick. Specifically, Eisenhauer has planted a row of Rubel blueberries, which are pea-size and contain twice the antioxidant power of a hybrid berry.

The 2010 picking season was a short one. The Eisenhauers opened their farm at the end of June and closed by July 24. Temperature spikes in early April and the dry summer contributed to low fruit yield. However, the blueberry season will be extended into August once the other fields are open and irrigation is underway.

Blueberry and business maintenance

After the blueberry season is over and the farm is closed to the public, Eisenhauer focuses on weed and grass control, but waits until spring to trim his bushes. “Once you have a bud break and foliage starts coming on, about three to four weeks, you can [see if it’s] a dead limb or not,” Eisenhauer says.

He advertises through his website and several local newspapers. Signage directs customers to the pick-your-own farm.

John and Crystal Eisenhauer with their son, Brett, a future blueberry farmer.

Eisenhauer and his wife find job satisfaction in the farm’s history and the memories that are created in people’s lives. They have customers that are now bringing the second and third generation of blueberry pickers to Split Rock Blueberry Farm.

If Eisenhauer could change one thing about his farm it would be the rocks, even though the farm is named “Split Rock.” He finds that the rocks infest the blueberry fields and wreak havoc on mowing equipment. Many times, he and his workers have picked out boulders where only the tip stuck out of the ground.

The Eisenhauers may be accidental blueberry farmers, but they see a future with their young business. It provides summer employment for Crystal when she’s off from her teaching job, and John sees this part-time venture becoming a full-fledged second career when he retires. In the meantime, they’ll be adding more varieties to the fields and improving their irrigation system for better blueberries, which translates into happy customers.

A member of the North American Agricultural Journalists association and the Garden Writers Association, Komancheck writes about agriculture, family and the green industry from her home near Ephrata, Pa.