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FoodPaths - June, 2014
Blues & The Bees
John & Armen Carlon, Sierra Cascade Blueberries, Forest Ranch, CA.

It’s nearly blueberry season and the bees are buzzing. Bumblebees, that is. Those are the big yellow and black ones. The ones you can really hear buzzing. Serious bees; spectacular pollinators.

John Carlon and Armen Carlon, are the owners of Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm, one of California’s first certified organic blueberry farms. Since they first began over 20 years ago, the Carlons have practiced “Biologically Integrated Agriculture,” moving the concept of certified organic” far beyond cleansed soil and the quest for healthy food.

At the beginning, they faced the same challenges as other farmers – birds feeding off a healthy portion of the crop, water management, fertilizers, pest control, disease, invasive weeds, and the need to rent honey bees to pollinize the berry blossoms.

“When we first started, we rented commercial honeybees to pollinate the blueberry blossoms,” said John. “After a few years, we realized that with the farm located at an elevation of 2,300 feet, and bumblebees specie-specific to the surrounding Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges and wildlands, we could probably get away with local pollinators.”

Costly honeybee hive rentals gave way to the neighborly bumblebees. While the decline of honeybees through Colony Collapse Disorder has been well reported in the agriculture trades and main press, yet when we visited the farm recently, honeybees had re-surfaced naturally, busily pollinating the plants side by side with the bumblebees. Comprised of 61 acres, 8 ½ acres cultivated with Highbush blueberries and with an additional two acres set aside for planting, the remainder is being returned to the State of California as a natural forest.

“Sometimes agriculture is apprehensive about biodiversity,” said John. “We don’t think about minimizing. Our goal is to maximize what is already on the land without the aid of ‘off-farm inputs’ and integrate what is already on the land into farming practices. We manage by not managing.

“If all these things work,” he continued, “no purchase of fertilizer or water, natural pest control, no rental hives – we will have created a stable business model using our own ecosystem to deliver a quality product – our blueberries – with our farm producing as a viable economic unit.”

* * *

“One of the most critical factors in growing blueberries is pollination,” he explained.

“To set a full crop, we need 80 per cent of the flowers to be pollinated. Our small farm of eight acres has about 20 million flowers. Each flower has to be cross-pollinated, which means 40 million visits to the flowers. To do that, we rely on the bees.”

John shared a bit about bumblebees:

In addition to emphasizing the use of the naturally available bumblebees, the Carlons have shifted their farming practices over the years. Among the changes adopted: A pair of Cooper Hawks that protect the blueberries from voracious birds competing for fruit; No fertilizer, compost or manure; the droppings from local wildlife including mountain lions, black bears, deer, raccoons, skunks, rabbits and mice provide plentiful fertilizer; A cover crop of 1- 3 inches between the planted rows left behind to degrade from year to year, resulting in a sponge-like layer of thatch that holds in rain without surface runoff, digests organic matter, and retains and slowly releases nutrients and moisture. 

John also has a different view of gophers. Unlike others, at some point John gave up on the gophers when he made a number of discoveries. First, he discovered that 80% of the blueberry root system lay within the top 12 inches of soil; the gopher network was constructed deeper than the 12 inches. When the gophers abandoned their underground tunnels and burrows, open holes containing nest cavities already lined with grass fibers remained open, providing access for the bee queens to nest.

* * *

Blueberries, native to North America, long a fixture in Native American folktales and children’s stories, are also known as star berries because the blossom end of the berry, the calyx, forms the shape of a perfect five-pointed star

Sierra Cascade blueberries are all Highbush, a type that grows well in a northern environment with heat tolerance. Varieties currently grown on the farm are Blueray, Bleucrop, Duke, Bluetta, Spartan, older varieties selected for taste and berry characteristics. At harvest, the clamshells contain only one variety.

There are different types of blueberries – Highbush, Lowbush, Half-High and Rabbiteye. Some, like Rabbiteye, grow well in the South; Lowbush blueberries flourish on the edges of bogs, in environments like the coast of Maine. All blueberries, however, require high moisture content without being water-logged.

* * *

John, raised in Santa Rosa, CA, grew up with farming in his veins. Both grandparents were farmers; one a sheep and cattle rancher in Wyoming; the other a wheat grower in South Dakota. Armen grew up in Lafayette, CA, in San Francisco’s East Bay. They met in a beekeeping class at Chico State, where, in the early 1980’s, she was studying geography, and he, agronomy and pomology, the study of fruits and nuts.

With friends, they started a local farmer’s market to sell the produce from the school’s experimental farm. John noticed that berries -- blackberries, strawberries, and ollalaberries sold well. Blueberries sold very well. At the time, conventional wisdom among agricultural professionals doubted that blueberries, requiring a combination of cold winters and warm spring/summers could be grown successfully in a year-round mountain environment.

“We wanted to start a blueberry farm.” said John. “Blueberries seemed hard to grow, but easy to sell. Ten acres could produce a decent crop requiring very little equipment. Research was beginning to show that antioxidant-rich blueberries had health benefits, helping to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure. Today they are considered one of the Top 10 SuperFoods, packed with dietary fiber, Vitamin C and other nutrients. The challenge was that I was not going to inherit land or a farm and we needed money to get started.”

* * *

The couple put their goal on hold. Like many young couples, they followed a series of zig-zag detours. John took on two assignments in Saudi Arabia managing wheat farms, one with 8,000 acres under irrigation and employing experts from 13 nationalities. Armen worked part-time at home, waiting for a visa to join John in Saudi Arabia.

Re-uniting in Sri Lanka, the couple traveled through South East Asia before returning to the states, where John received a Master’s degree in agricultural development from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, CA. Taking on one more overseas position, the couple wound up in Khartoum, Sudan, working for the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization. Soon, with two children ages five and one, they returned to the Sierra Cascades.

* * *

“We bought a farm,” said John, remembering the early days. The farm, purchased in 1988 and planted in 1989, came with an initial 41 acres accompanied by three unknowns: 1.) Would the plants produce enough berries to yield a commercial crop; 2.) Would the fruit quality be acceptable to the market; and 3.) When would the plants actually produce fruit?

“Our choices of varietals were limited when we first began,” John explained. “Back then, sources were limited. We began with four varietals out of Oregon, and learned that plants often have jet lag. Not until the second year did we get an idea when they would blossom. You need blossoms to attract the bees and bees to pollinate the blossoms.

John admits that there were many “I don’t know” moments.

“We knew there were three mission critical factors,” he said. “Blueberries are acid loving plants. The soil must be well-aerated (later a task handed off to the gophers), moist, high in humus and acidic. We did not know if we would have enough ‘chilling days.’ All fruits need a certain number of cumulative days below 30 degrees. When spring comes, the plants differentiate from bud to blossom. If the weather is too hot, or too cold – even for a few hours – it can kill the blossoms and the plants will not produce fruit. And, we didn’t know if we would have enough water.”

“The Hallalujah Moment came four years after we first planted when we picked our first crop,” recalled John. “Friends came to help harvest the berries. We were organic and three weeks ahead of other growers. We were validated.”

* * *

“Before we converted an old barn into our house, we lived in a tent on the property with two children,” John said. “Both grew up in the business, and wound up managing harvest. Ryan, 30, is a graduate of Harvard University; Will, 26, holds a degree from UC Davis. “I took short-term jobs, did all the work on the farm myself, maxed out our credit cards and was ready to borrow from my in-laws. We didn’t have a bank loan because no one would lend money to an organic farmer that didn’t actually have any farming experience.”

That’s when they turned to local farmer’s markets. “The local market was an amazing resource in the early days,” said John. “Most of our expenditures are at harvest. You need 60 people working 6 days a week. There are costs for storage and packaging. By selling at the farmer’s market early on, we had cash flow to cover those expenses. Last year there were roughly 4000 acres of commercial blueberries grown in California; there are still only about 200 acres of organic blueberries coming to market. Every year we re-invest, continue to refine our product and marketing. From the day we went to market, we have sold to Veritable Vegetable, Whole Foods, Molly Stone, Roots & Shoots and at a selection of Farmer’s Markets. “We air freighted fruit 10-15 years ago – now we sell predominately in California and the West Coast.

* * *

It is unclear whether John’s hands-on agricultural and land management experience at home and abroad has impacted his passion, River Partners, (where he serves as president) or whether his passion for wildlife preservation and land management has impacted his agriculture.
“Working all day with ecologists and biologists,” offered John, “made me re-evaluate my farming practices and inspired me to approach our farm from a much more holistic perspective. I started to ask: How does our farm fit into, and affect, the watershed, air basin, eco-region, wildlife migration corridors, and the natural processes of the larger landscape.”

John offered a few final comments about bees:

“Bees tend to threaten people because they sting,” he said. “I would ask that the public remember that one of every four bites of food comes from these pollinators. Without them, a lot of favorite fruits and vegetables will not be readily available. So plant a garden, no matter how small with fruits, vegetables and flowers that are sources of pollen. Put a few water dishes out and do not be afraid. If you have bees in your yard, it is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.”

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