News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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July 19, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Hoosier Blueberry Ranch helping local festival beat the drought

TERRE HAUTE — Most front yards look like a lunar soil sample from Apollo 11. So, it’s hard to imagine a blueberry festival being stocked by fresh fruit grown right here in Indiana.

The words “drought” and “blueberries” clash. One conjures images of dried-up streams and dusty farm fields. The other sounds sweet and juicy.

Impossible as it seems, they can co-exist.

In the midst of a near-record Midwest drought, today’s fourth annual Terre Foods Cooperative Market Blueberry Fest at Central Presbyterian Church in Terre Haute will feature 1,500 pounds of certified-organic fruit, grown at the Blueberry Ranch, situated between the towns of Granger and Mishawaka in St. Joseph County. Terre Foods volunteers Dave Voltmer and Rob Bunch drove four hours north on Wednesday to pick up the fresh berries from John Nelson’s farm, and hoped to return by early evening.

Organizers had a hard time finding locally produced blueberries that would be ripe and plentiful enough for their mid-July festival. The brutal weather — from an early-spring frost to the scorching, arid summer — left central-Indiana farms unable to supply the Terre Haute fest, said Holly Hudson, a Terre Foods steering committee member. Voltmer, who sits on that same committee, found the Blueberry Ranch online.

An order of 1,500 pounds of blueberries? No problem, Nelson told Voltmer.

“No hesitation at all,” Voltmer said of the farmer’s assurance.

Then, with the drought in mind, Voltmer added, “I don’t know how he did it.”

The answer comes from above, as in water — not from the sky, but from an overhead irrigation system. That mechanism allowed fruit on the bushes at Blueberry Ranch to survive the April frost and continue ripening through steamy, rainless June and July. Several of Nelson’s fellow blueberry growers never had the chance to take on the drought, and left their markets closed after freezing spring temperatures mortally wounded their fruit.

“It’s safe to say, if you didn’t have overhead irrigation this season, chances are you have a significantly reduced crop,” Nelson said by cellphone Wednesday from the farm.

During frost, the system continually wets the berries, a process that gives off heat and protects the fruit, Nelson said. During drought, it cools and moistens the blueberries. The farm has plenty of water for irrigation, because the region sits on one of the nation’s largest aquifers, he explained. As a result, Blueberry Ranch has 100 percent of its crop intact, though some of the berries are “a little bit smaller” because of the high air temperatures.

“It’s a wonderful crop,” said Sue Cooper, who oversees the Blueberry Ranch’s “U-pick” service, where customers harvest their own berries at the farm, which opened in 1953.

The berries were packed up and ready for Voltmer and Bunch on Wednesday.

The 460-mile round trip stretched Terre Foods’ principle of using “local” produce, Voltmer said. Still, while Mishawaka and Granger are not exactly in the Wabash Valley, they are 100-percent Hoosier towns. Also, Blueberry Ranch is a 100-percent, USDA-certified organic farm, which is another Terre Foods core principle. “That is a plus for us,” said Hudson. “We would’ve liked to have kept it a little bit closer, but welcome to the challenges of weather.”

Such a concept inherently involves a bit of living on the edge. The berries, just harvested a day or two earlier in St. Joseph County near the Indiana-Michigan border, are driven through the afternoon to Terre Haute (by Bunch and Voltmer, this year), stored overnight inside Central Presbyterian Church, and then served raw or on ice cream sundaes in drought-stricken Vigo County the next day.

Nobody said “fresh” and “local” would necessarily mean “easy.”

The effort matters to Terre Foods members and others who support the idea of healthy eating, locally grown and consumed foods, and community sustainability. Since launching in 2007, Terre Foods has gained 446 members, just shy of its goal of 600. Ultimately, it intends to open a member-owned food business. It will be a “democratically controlled store, owned by the community members,” Hudson said. “That’s the blessing and the challenge.”

The Blueberry Fest offers the group a moment of visibility, and an opportunity to inspire new members, Hudson said. It has easy appeal for the general public, too. Packed with antioxidants, vitamins and nutrients, blueberries also — and, get this — taste good. It’s like eating Brussels sprouts that taste like a Snickers bar.

The berries meet the people today, from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m., as volunteers will serve blueberry sundaes at $5 apiece, and ice cream for $2. Quarts of blueberries will also be available at $7, with a limit of two per person until later in the day. Last year, Terre Foods sold 1,000 sundaes, and all 1,500 pounds of blueberries. Organizers say the two-quart limit will help prevent running out of fruit for customers wanting sundaes before early evening.

As in their growing season, blueberries require care and protection after harvest, too.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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