The rows and rows of blueberry bushes give one a certain calmness. Well-tended and pruned for access as well as production, the bushes are a pleasure to view. Only after looking more closely does one see the jewels in the crown – the delicious bunches of deep-blue ripe berries.
Less than a half mile north of Quitman on Highway 37, The Blueberry Farm offers visitors a chance to collect the delicious berries and reconnect with the agricultural past. If food always tastes better when one is hungry, then it surely always tastes better when one exerts energy in harvesting it.
In January 2007, Gary and Lisa Parish planted 3,000 young blueberry bushes on the northwest slope of their 19-acre holding. “It was 28 degrees and sleeting,” Gary recalled.
“My help quit due to the cold, so we did it all ourselves.” Lisa added, “That first year, we picked them ourselves and graded them on the kitchen table.”
A hearty plant, the blueberries under the Parish’s care had the full array of East Texas threats to deal with. The family has never used insecticide on the farm, opting for natural methods of pest control. To be able to state that they are insecticide-free, the extra labor is worth it, Gary commented.
The concept of hard work is not foreign to Gary Parish. He developed this trait under the tutelage of his grandfather, J.B. Wallace. The Wallace family raised a variety of sustenance crops on their farm in the bottomland, which would become Lake Tawakoni. His grandfather planted the slope with him on that cold January day in 2007. Although Wallace has now passed, the man who left school in the second grade to pick cotton, instilled a “work every day” mentality in his grandson.
The early years of the farm found the Parishes traveling as far as Rockwall, Terrell and east to Longview to advertise. With production steadily increasing, in 2010 they turned to a “pick your own” method to distribute the fruit.
As Gary explained, Texas farms have a mere 1,000 acres of blueberries under cultivation annually, with most blueberry farms 8-15 acres. The demand is large, but local growers must contend with imports, largely from Mexico.
The Star variety grown at The Blueberry Farm is noted for its sweetness and large output and quickly became a favorite of customers traveling from Dallas and Fort Worth.
Lisa described the initial years of the business as “five to six years of magic” as they realized moderate success with the farm. Each year, the Parishes augmented their blueberry production with other offerings, including tomatoes, butternut squash, peas, watermelon and okra. Lisa produced jams one year, and they had a successful foray into blueberry ice cream.
The challenges facing specialty growers in East Texas are formidable. Gary noted that most of the land that was once under seed has been turned to pasture. As a result, transportation costs increased dramatically for those farmers left still tilling the soil.
Transportation difficulties, when combined with unpredictable precipitation, threaten East Texas growers. For blueberries especially, early summer rains can be disastrous. Deer, cedar waxwings, stinkbugs, and spore-born afflictions, such as mummy berry, remain concerns all year round.
Challenges aside, Lisa recalled that one of the very first customers in 2010 told her, “It was the prettiest field they had ever seen.” Lisa added, “99 percent of our visitors truly appreciate the energy and investment we make into our berries.”
Picking season is mid-May through mid-July. Due to the sensitivity of blueberries to weather fluctuations, it is recommended to consult the website www.the-blueberry-farm.com, or call the farm at 903-497-6028 or 903-763-2801 to plan a visit. Don’t forget that blackberries are also available as a “pick your own.”
The sense of pride at The Blueberry Farm reveals itself as soon as customers are greeted by the Parishes. It is pride built from labor and toil, and producing by their own hands. The product of this labor is arguably the most delicious fruit available.