One year ago Stacy Lewars and her partner Dylan Tomine took a life leap. With no farming background, they bought the 100-year-old Wilson farm on North Madison Avenue. The Wilsons had previously run a holly empire there, but in 2007 had shifted to growing blueberries and dahlias.
Lewars and her family had loved the farm as Bainbridge Island blueberry u-pickers, and when she saw the farm’s real estate listing “sheer gut impulse” kicked in. She talked to Tomine, whom she told me said “no; then maybe; then yes.” Lewars also talked to her kids, Skyla and Weston, trying to explain the realities of farm life to them: “Of course they were jumping at the idea of buying a blueberry farm. But they’ve been great through the hard parts.”
“I didn’t want the decision to be driven by my impulsiveness,” said Lewars. “So I talked a lot with the Wilsons too. I spent time at the farm. I asked questions and watched. I sat down face to face, mother to mother with Chris Wilson and asked her point blank if she thought I could make this a successful business, startup time aside. And she said yes. I took her at her word.”
Some mentoring from the Wilsons and a full farming season later, Lewars has gotten to know her 1,583 blueberry plants intimately. “I counted them,” she pointed out. With Tomine working as a writer, whose first book, Closer to the Ground, is just now being released, Lewars is the primary worker of the farm. She has pruned, fertilized, gleaned, picked, weeded, weighed, sold, watched, and worried over her charges through rain, wind, sun, lightning, drought, and snowfall.
I asked her what she loves and hates about blueberry farming.
Without skipping a beat she said she loves connecting with customers and the stories they tell her: “Your mind is free in the field picking food. There is something primal about it. People, especially women, open up. One woman told me about a miscarriage she had gone through that she had never told anyone else about. Another woman was crying in the dahlias.” Stacy’s voice broke and she started to cry as she continued: “I asked the woman if she was okay, and she said her mother had recently died and she was feeling her mother’s love so much there among the dahlias. . . .”
“And pruning. I love pruning—it’s half art and half science,” said Lewars. Throughout our talk she also mentioned the outpouring of community support her family has received since taking over the farm and how sustaining it has been.
What does she hate about farming blueberries? Not surprisingly, the weeding: “It’s physically hard. You go from plant to plant down a row. And then you look at all the rows left. There is weeding now and a big spring emergence. But you have to stay on top of it all year round.”
Lewars told me her plan is to hire someone to help work the farm, that the way her family is doing it right now is unsustainable.
She is tired and has an endless to-do list. “But,” she said, “I’m also feeling physically stronger and more alive than ever before, and proud.”
While providing a tour to fourth graders from The Island School on the farm’s final day of picking for the season last Friday, September 21, Lewars described the four varieties of blueberry she grows. Darrows are an intensely flavorful, spicy berry. Hardy Blues offer large, sweet, heavy yields. Vigorous, medium-sized Legacy berries are considered the best tasting of any blueberry variety. And Chandlers are long-lasting, disease-resistant plants with huge berries.
All 2.5 acres of the farm’s current blueberry plants were put in by the Wilsons in 2008 at one year old. Since they take seven to eight years to reach maturity (growing to a height of about six feet) they won’t yield their full potential for a few more years. If properly maintained, the plants can live some 60-70 years. “They’ll outlive me,” Lewars told me.
She said that the eight-to-ten-week blueberry season typically runs from midJuly until early October, but the cold weather this July and the immaturity of the plants shortened the season a bit this year.
Lewars explained to the fourth graders that once the picking season ends, every single berry that is left on each bush must be removed by hand to prevent rot and disease, a laborious postseason job called gleaning. A few parents along for the tour suggested having community gleaning days to help, so Lewars is inviting families to come pick away the rest of the berries and take them home for free on the following dates:
- October 1, Monday, 1-5 p.m.
- October 8, Monday, 1-5 p.m.
- October 13, Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
And what about the dahlias? Lewars said they account for about 5-10 percent of her farm’s business, but she’d like to expand them and bring in some of the newer showy varietals for fun. Their long growing season runs from June until first frost. Lewars said, “They’re incredibly productive. The more blossoms you cut, the more they make.”
Visit Bainbridge Island Blueberry Company on Facebook or their website.
Photos courtesy of Marilynn Gottlieb and by Julie Hall.