Near total loss for blueberry farmers after rollercoaster temperatures

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) – A mild winter with hard spring frosts has left local blueberry farms devastated.

“The strawberries and blueberries were ahead of the game. We were picking strawberries at the end of January,” said Michael Parker at Hickory Bluff Berry Farm. “We should be picking berries in March and April and the blueberries came in extremely early this year. Then we had the two days of frost and heavy wind and it probably added up to a 90 percent loss on our blueberries.”

They were able to save the strawberries by covering them, but because of the wind it was impossible to cover rows of tall blueberry bushes.

“There was really no preventative maintenance we could have performed to save the blueberry crop,” Parker said.

The Holly Hill farm wasn’t the only one to lose huge swaths of berries last month.

In Ravenel, Champney’s Blueberry Farm does a little better, reporting loses of 75 to 85 percent. Emery Tumbleston chalks that up to being located near a river that keeps the area slightly warmer.

“At nearby farm, Newton’s Blueberry Farm, they actually experienced a colder temperature. They were around 24 degrees,” Tumbleston said. “They even lost new growth on their stems. Their leaves were even burned up.”

Tumbleston says they have about 10 acres of family farm, all of it dedicated to blueberries. She says it’s a devastating loss and one they had no control over.

“We always say the Vegas gambler has nothing on the American farmer because you’re basically trying to beat all the odds,” Tumblerson said. “Statistically, it shouldn’t work. There’s no reason why somebody should go up against all the elements just for little return like this, but we still do it and we love it.”

Champney’s is a seasonal farm dedicated to blueberries and despite the loses they’ll still try and squeeze as much out of the bushes as possible and allow people to come in and pick what they can.

“We love being able to produce something from the Earth,” Tumbleston said. “When you can put something in the ground and watch it grow and know that you did it and then you’re helping to feed a community, it’s very rewarding to do something like that.”

Meanwhile, the family farm at Hickory Bluff is able to weather the storm by diversifying their crops and by doubling down on agritourism. Parker says small farms need to be investing into agritourism to stay competitive, especially when crops fail.

“If this is the only thing you are relying on, then there is no back up,” Parker said. “Farming is what made Hickory Bluff, there’s no doubt about it. . .but the agritourism end of it is what keeps us afloat. I really think if we don’t allow the public to come here and see our farm and experience our farm for what it is, then if something does happen then it’s over.”

On top of u-pick blueberries, blackberries and strawberries, Hickory Bluff has a garden center, a food truck and host community events on holidays like Easter and the Fourth of July.

“As long as we can get the community to come out and support us, we’re going to make it,” Parker said.

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