The blueberry farmer

Karl Wells
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Agriculture Former Mountie goes from force to field

Jeff Milner has turned approximately 300 acres of leased land in Central Newfoundland into prime blueberry fields.

The retired RCMP officer established his unusual farm six years ago at Jumpers Brook. Milner remembers harvesting blueberries as a boy in his native Sackville, N.B. He always had a mind to start a blueberry farm, even though he was raised on a beef farm.

Dining out -

Jeff Milner has turned approximately 300 acres of leased land in Central Newfoundland into prime blueberry fields.

The retired RCMP officer established his unusual farm six years ago at Jumpers Brook. Milner remembers harvesting blueberries as a boy in his native Sackville, N.B. He always had a mind to start a blueberry farm, even though he was raised on a beef farm.

After serving 25 years with the Mounties in places like Burgeo, Stephenville and Grand Falls he now operates Jumpers Brook Blueberry Farm, producers of Frosty Wild Blueberries.

The berries are frozen and sold in 5 pound durable cardboard boxes at Coleman's, Co-op, Sobeys and Costco. Retail price ranges between $15 and $17 per box. According to Milner the price is justified by the extremely high quality of his product. Frosty berries still maintain their bloom - the bluish surface coating - and are as individual after freezing as when they were on the bush.

This is possible because at Jumpers Brook they do not use a water process for ridding the berries of leaves and bits of branch. Air is forced through them to blow away the unwanted material.

Water vs. air

Many blueberry farms wash berries in water to remove leaves and twigs. The wet berries are frozen and held.

Eventually they are processed through equipment that shakes off ice and twig matter. The contact with water and extra handling removes the bloom and turns them dark.

Often these berries stick together when frozen, unlike Milner's berries, which still look pristine after freezing.

Apart from processing, Newfoundland's low-bush blueberries have inherent qualities above and beyond mainland berries. Milner explained that mainland berries are infected by a fruit fly that does not exist here in Newfoundland.

"Newfoundland has a complete ban on high-bush and low-bush blueberries coming into the province because we don't want this character. CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) has been testing every year and we don't have it. The only fresh Canadian blueberries allowed into Newfoundland are high-bush blueberries from B.C. Apparently they don't have this fruit fly either."

He went on to explain another reason why Newfoundland's homegrown blueberries are superior.

"Because of our cooler, longer growing season the Newfoundland blueberry has developed a tough character. It took me 15 years to get paper on this but Newfoundland blueberries have tested higher in antioxidant value and other pharmaceutical values - mostly in the skin itself.

"Centuries of growing in this climate have given them their high antioxidant value. Maine harvests a month and a half before us. It takes berries here longer to ripen but we do better for it."

How?

If, like me, you're wondering how Newfoundland low-bush blueberries are farmed, it's pretty straightforward.

One thing you will never have to do is actually plant them. First you need to find land where blueberries are already growing. Then you clear the area of anything that will compete with the blueberry bushes for nutrients. Burning the blueberry bushes using a special gas powered burner encourages growth and development.

It takes a couple of years for a field to yield realistic commercial amounts, so farmers have more than one area in play at a time.

After burning or mowing, a field will need burning again in three or four years because yield drops dramatically over a year or two.

You'll also need to build roads into your fields for worker and equipment access. A tractor is necessary for hauling. Then there are burners, mowers, picking rakes, containers and, of course, processing equipment - blower, tables, freezers et cetera. As you can see, a significant outlay of money is required.

Wise farmers like Milner create a realistic business plan which includes a marketing plan. There's no point in growing blueberries if nobody buys them.

Milner believes retailers (supermarkets and restaurants) and consumers should support local farmers, farm workers and products.

Local produce is higher in quality; it's better for you. However, that quality comes at a cost.

Tough

"A vegetable farmer in Newfoundland cannot compete with a 1,200-acre carrot farm in Quebec. Nor can he compete with potatoes from P.E.I. off a 600-acre farm over there.

Our growing conditions are different and cooler and we get less of a crop sometimes. But we have as much if not more expenses,' he said.

"The major market is St. John's. To get my blueberries into St. John's it's a 10 or 11 hour round trip with a truck. That costs me $250 to $300 in fuel alone. Now government regulations require that I overnight in St. John's so tack overnight expenses onto that. ...

The public have to understand that buying local is important. As a berry farmer, I have to compete with berries coming in from other countries with child labour issues. They have no rules."

"We have better food, better programs, but unless people here realize we need their support, we're in for a tough time.," he added.

Milner acknowledges there are buyers that support local producers. Others, he says, are only interested in the lowest priced produce.

Often that's from outside the province. There's also the question of what constitutes "local" because some stores identify products from P.E.I., Quebec and Nova Scotia as local.

He says he and others chose to farm knowing the challenges. He doesn't want to come across as a whiner.

Yet he believes that because farmers in this province work very hard, they aren't asking too much in wanting to go from an "adequate" to "comfortable" living.

Hopefully more and more of us will agree and begin to buy or continue to buy our own products.




BLUEBERRY RECIPES

Blueberry & Yogurt Smoothie
Ingredients:
1/2 cup of wild blueberries
1/2 cup of blueberry yogurt
1/2 a banana
1/2 cup of ice
Method:
Blend the banana, ice and yogurt together until the banana is well blended. Add the blueberries and blend on low speed for 30 seconds. Adding the blueberries at the end leaves the blueberry flavour at the top.
Blueberry Pieces Smoothie
Ingredients:
1/4 cup of wild blueberries
1/4 cup of wild blueberries chopped into pieces
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 a banana
1/2 cup of ice
Method:
Start by blending the ice, banana, honey, and whole blueberries on a high speed. Place the chopped blueberries in a glass before pouring the smoothie. Stir and enjoy a great fruity smoothie.
Source: Courtesy smoothie-recipes.com

Organizations: RCMP, Sobeys, Costco Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Central Newfoundland, Sackville Burgeo Grand Falls St. John's Quebec Maine Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • Laura Halfyard
    September 09, 2013 - 15:07

    Am interested in your organic blueberries. We produce organic mussels about an hour away from your farm. Would like to talk to you about organic product promotion.

  • Cora simms
    August 10, 2013 - 08:53

    Desparte to get nfld blueberries as there is nothing like them been trying to get some to calgary any chances of that? Would at least buy a flat or2, thank you looking forward to enjoying some real blueberries from my youth

  • Donald Boyer
    April 22, 2013 - 13:22

    Does he sell over the Web? Are there any distributors in Western Canada? If I don't know they are there I can't buy them.

  • Pete Sullivan
    December 26, 2011 - 22:48

    If possible, can anyone tell me if Jeff Milner's Blueberry farm at Jumpers Brook is still in operation? I tried sending an email to their website and it was returned. Thanks, wife and I were trying to order some Newfoundland blueberries online, I am from Grand Falls-Windsor, and I've been gone for 40 years, living in NC, USA now. Any hints on where i can or oder home grown blueberries to be shipped frozen to the states would be helpful. Thanks, Pete