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Raising blueberries: Local farmers battle drought, disease to grow one of the region’s most popular summertime treats

  • Above, blueberries picked at Sobieski’s River Valley Farm in Whately. At right, the farm on River Valley Road, at sunset. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO Photos

  • Blueberries picked at Sobieski's River Valley Farm Thursday, July 21, 2016. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO—ANDY CASTILLO

  • Blueberries picked at Sobieski's River Valley Farm Thursday, July 21, 2016. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO—ANDY CASTILLO

  • Irwin and Martha Spiegelman of Amherst pick blueberries at Sobieski’s River Valley Farm in Whately on Thursday. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Irwin and Martha Spiegelman, of Amherst, pick blueberries at Sobieski's River Valley Farm in Whately Thursday, July 21, 2016. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO—ANDY CASTILLO

  • Irwin and Martha Spiegelman, of Amherst, pick blueberries at Sobieski's River Valley Farm in Whately Thursday, July 21, 2016. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO—ANDY CASTILLO

  • Robert Sobieski, who runs Sobieski's River Valley Farm in Whately, tends to blueberry bushes Thursday, July 21, 2016. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO—ANDY CASTILLO

  • Robert Sobieski, who runs Sobieski's River Valley Farm in Whately, tends his blueberry bushes. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Mary Jane Soule, a clerk at Sobieski's River Valley Farm, stands in front of the farm's stand on River Valley Road in Whately. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Mary Jane Soule, a clerk at Sobieski's River Valley Farm, stands in front of the farm's stand on River Valley Road in Whately. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Blueberries on Sobieski's River Valley Farm on River Valley Road in Whately at sunset, July 21, 2016. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Blueberries on Sobieski's River Valley Farm on River Valley Road on Thursday. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Blueberries on Sobieski's River Valley Farm on River Valley Road in Whately at sunset, July 21, 2016. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Blueberries on Sobieski's River Valley Farm on River Valley Road in Whately at sunset, July 21, 2016. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Blueberries on Sobieski's River Valley Farm on River Valley Road in Whately at sunset, July 21, 2016. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO



For the Bulletin
Thursday, August 04, 2016

On a recent Thursday evening around 8 p.m., pastel hues streaked the eastern sky, softening a blazing sun, casting pale light onto the blueberry bushes of Sobieski’s River Valley Farm in Whately.

“I’ve always been drawn to it,” said Robert Sobieski, manager of the farm. “I wanted to go off, do the college thing, but it kept calling me back. It’s in my blood.”

The farm on River Road has been in the family since the late 1970s when Sobieski’s father, Fran Sobieski, planted the first bush in 1977, the year he was born.

Along with selling berries by the pound during a pick-your-own season, the farm has a stand by the road and sells wholesale across New England. In the Pioneer Valley, stores that sell Sobieski’s blueberries include River Valley Market, Green Fields Market and Atkins Farm.

After a career in the U.S. Coast Guard and earning degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in environmental science and natural resources, Sobieski took the reins and has been managing the farm’s 12 acres of land, roughly 12,000 blueberry bushes, and 12 varieties of blueberries, ever since.

“There’s a lot of challenges,” he said, while standing amidst the bushes. “These are 39 years old, most of them.”

The challenges, he continued, include protecting the plants from various diseases, voles (that eat the plants’ roots), birds, insects and nature. Maintaining the health of the plants is a ‘round-the-clock, 365-day task.

Skobieski’s wife, Brieta, 4-year-old son, Rogan, and other family members, also help out on the farm.

How to be a blueberry farmer

Buds from the next year’s blueberry crop start forming in the fall; for Sobieski, formation of buds means weed control and pruning — even during the winter.

“Whether the snow is above my knees, or there’s no snow at all,” the blueberry farmer said, pruning doesn’t wait for the weather.

According to Sobieski, cutting back the plants encourages new growth, generates air flow and reduces disease.

In the spring, the bushes need to be fertilized and sprayed for fungal diseases. Sobieski said he uses minimal pesticides, and when he does spray, he uses reduced-risk or organic substances.

During the third week of June, the early varieties begin to ripen. Workers pick blueberries for wholesale by hand, so the berries aren’t crushed.

Starting on the Fourth of July and continuing through October, the farm is open for picking.

A tradition of picking

For many local residents, picking blueberries at Sobieski’s River Valley Farm is a tradition, passed down through generations of pickers.

“They’re delicious! Sweet. I used to pick years ago when I was younger,” said Jane Jankowski, who stopped by the farm’s roadside stand to pick up a few pints of blueberries. “Now I don’t pick anymore.”

Jankowski said she has been coming to the farm in Whately for about 25 years.

“Sometimes people pull up and ask, ‘Where are we picking today?’ ” said Mary Jane Soule, who was running the farm stand. “They don’t even get out of their cars. They drive right up to the spot, and have their own pails.”

For others, such as Ed Roseman, it was the first time experiencing Sobieski’s blueberries. Roseman said he stopped by the stand to support local agriculture.

“Farm stands rock,” he commented, “and it’s so wonderful we have them.”

The farm stand also offers other vegetables and fruit such as raspberries, squash and cucumbers.

Irwin and Martha Spiegelman of Amherst, who were picking blueberries Thursday, said their picking strategy is to find a bush they like and pick it clean.

“This is a good bush,” Martha Spiegelman said, “and we’ve picked most of them.”

She said this is the second time they’ve come this year, and have been coming for about six years.

“When I end, I always get a nice handful and I eat,” she demonstrated, grabbing and eating a handful of berries. “I hope they have a nice, long season this year.”

The difficulties of farming

This year, Sobieski said he’s been battling drought and fending off a large flock of starlings that are eating the blueberries.

“Because of that, I’m thinking about netting,” he said. “Maybe an acre at a time, it’s too much to do all at once.”

Although it’s rewarding, Skobieski said running a blueberry farm comes with a lot of challenges.

“Farming can be difficult at times, as all farmers in the area know and understand,” he said, while picking damaged berries off a plant. “We’re fighting against nature.”

Eventually, Skobieski said, he’d like to be able to pass the farm on to his son, who is already helping out by putting together boxes for wholesale.

“I really appreciate people who support local agriculture,” he continued. “We rely on it.”

The farm is open for picking Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Self-picked blueberries cost $3.29 per pound; a pint off the farm stand costs $4.