Chapel Hill News

Family comes by farming naturally at Cedar Grove blueberry orchard

Southern Durham resident Wendy Diaz picks blueberries Saturday, July 25, 2015, at the Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm north of Hillsborough, NC. Diaz and her family have been visiting the farm for roughly 10 years. New owners bought the farm in December and recently had it certified organic.
Southern Durham resident Wendy Diaz picks blueberries Saturday, July 25, 2015, at the Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm north of Hillsborough, NC. Diaz and her family have been visiting the farm for roughly 10 years. New owners bought the farm in December and recently had it certified organic. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

People have picked blueberries and gone fishing in the pond for years at a four-acre, semi-wild patch north of Hillsborough.

The Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm has been organic by default for at least a decade, its new owners said, getting nothing but what nature intended.

Lyndon Smith, his sister Kether Smith and her husband, Deric McGuffey, want to keep that going while giving the patch the care it’s been lacking. They said being certified organic last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes that official.

Farming and fruit run in the family, the Smiths said. They bought the land at 8411 N.C. 86 in December from their mother, Orange County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier and their stepfather Vann Bennett.

Their grandfather was a World Bank agronomist who taught farming techniques around the world, the Smiths said, and their grandmother grew flowers. One great-uncle was a wine taster for captains in the French army, while another helped develop the Pink Lady apple.

Their love for blueberries was nurtured during summer visits to their grandparents’ Pennsylvania home, they said, where the family tradition of picking peaches, blackberries and blueberries started with Pelissier and her siblings.

“It was a big deal that they would go and steal fruit when they weren’t supposed to eat the fruit, and there would be no fruit left in the freezer, because they all loved fruit so much,” Kether Smith said.

“And my kids, they haven’t found a fruit they didn’t like. ... I can’t keep enough fruit in the house.”

Preserve and protect

Pelissier and her husband bought the larger property intending to preserve more local farmland. When they learned the farm next door also was for sale, they took the opportunity to buy it. The family had picked berries there for years, Pelissier said.

That’s not unusual, the Smiths said. Some families have been visiting for 20 years or more, and even have their favorite spots among the 1,200 to 1,300 bushes. Some stay for a while, grabbing a bamboo pole to fish for bass or enjoying a picnic lunch. The farm operates when the sun is up; pickers can pay by the honor system if no one’s on duty.

Putting an “organic” label on the farm isn’t about the certification, Lyndon Smith said, but it is reassuring for customers. They wouldn’t have done it any other way, he said.

“There’s kids running around everywhere eating these berries, and we do a good amount of wholesale and retail (business), and so this is going into other folks’ products, as well,” he said. “It’s really important that this stuff is clean.”

More than 200 farms statewide are certified organic, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, meaning they rely on natural solutions, such as crop rotation and biological pest control, instead of chemical ones. Only a few are certified in Orange County.

The Smiths and McGuffey started by consulting with the nonprofit Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. The process, since they already used organic techniques, they said, only involved learning the rules, keeping records about their farm and filling out the paperwork.

Farms that previously used chemicals must change their practices for at least three years before seeking certification. The process can cost up to several thousand dollars, depending on the farm; the Smiths have applied for a refund of up to 75 percent from a USDA cost-share program.

Growing farm

The farm’s six employees are engaged, for now, in the hard work of pruning bushes that grew to over 6 feet tall in the last 10 years. They’re also hand-clearing grass, weeds and young trees from the base of each bush before adding a layer of mulch.

It’s important not to baby the plants, Lyndon Smith said, because stress produces a better fruit.

“If you’re keeping everything too happy and just filling it with water, and nothing ever messes with the plant, you basically just end up with so much fruit that the fruit that’s on there doesn’t have any concentration and depth of flavor,” he said.

McGuffey, who works as a pastry chef at G2B in Durham, said he’s “gotten a fantastic response” from diners to his blueberry creations.

The future lies in diversity and agri-tourism, Lyndon Smith said. Their certified organic nursery sold about a thousand plants this year, and this winter, they will work on a cider and juice production facility. He’s parlaying his past as a wine distributor into partnerships with chocolatiers and breweries.

“We want to keep everything here on the farm,” Lyndon Smith said. “So we’re going to grow it, we’re going to ferment it, and we’re going to pour it here.”

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