Standing in an old-growth blueberry forest, Ezra Ranz is demonstrating the “two-finger tickle” method for picking ripe berries from clusters dangling on 7-foot canes.
“Pretty simple,” he says. “Hands underneath the berries, gentle fingertips brushing toward your palms, presto. Like tickling a baby.”
He grins mischievously. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, 9 fat berries roll into his palms and down to the professional picker’s bucket, which is hanging from a neck strap.
Ranz is one of the new owners of Bow Hill Blueberries, a venerable five-acre organic farm in Washington state’s Skagit River Valley. With his sister Audrey Matheson and their respective spouses, Emma and Andrew, the family bought the farm last fall, when the pandemic turned several of their salaried jobs to dust. Ranz and Matheson were born and raised in a ranching valley in Northeastern California and had long mused about owning a farm. “What the heck,” they said upon learning Bow Hill was for sale, and decided to take the plunge.
Since then, with mentoring from the previous owners, Susan and Harley Soltes, they’ve been learning organic berry production at a pace almost as rapid as that at which the robust heirloom bushes grow.
One thing not unique about Bow Hill is that it’s a Washington state blueberry farm: The Evergreen State leads in total production of blueberries, with an annual harvest of just under 100 million pounds. Next on the list are Georgia, Michigan, Oregon, and New Jersey, the last being the original homeland of high-bush blueberries such as those at Bow Hill. They were first adapted from wild varieties that developed their great height to compete with tall marsh grasses in the bogs that are their native habitats. Their descendants are classified by federal agriculture officials as “tame” blueberries, to distinguish them from the “wild” low-bush blueberries of Maine.
Beyond that, though, Bow Hill’s distinctions go on. Just 10 to 15 percent of America’s 650 million pounds in annual blueberry production is Certified Organic, and Bow Hill’s 70,000 pounds each year are among that modest percentage. The blueberries there are heirloom varieties planted in 1947. Yes, they’re 74-year-old bushes, a venerable distinction exceeded in U.S. agriculture only by old-vine Zinfandel grapes in California and a few heirloom tree fruit orchards across the country.
Bow Hill is the oldest blueberry farm in Skagit County, dating back to that 1947 first planting by the farm’s founders, Ane and Severin Anderson. The Andersons bought the land in 1933, and initially planted strawberries and raised mink. Then, a traveling agricultural salesman from the East Coast convinced them to switch to blueberries. “Yep, a real traveling salesman,” Ranz marvels about Bow Hill’s backstory. “Sounds like an old movie, doesn’t it?”
The Andersons sold the farm to the Soltes family in 2008. The Soltes converted it to an organic farm and incorporated the value-added products that are now key to the farm’s success. Online sales are a major share of the business, and Bow Hill thus seems thoroughly millennial. But the Bluecrop, Stanley, Jersey, and Rubel bushes all date back generations, and, as these varieties were first developed in the late 19th century, their old-growth root balls literally carry the deep roots of blueberry farming.
“Look at that bush’s root crown,” Ranz enthuses as we walk through rows of Rubel bushes. “This bush is older than me—way older. I plan for them to outlive me, too. And they’re as robust as ever: This new growth will be bearing berries over my head next summer.” I ask about the name of the bush. “Descended from wild bushes collected in the late 19th century by some guy named ‘Rube,’ I gather,” he says with a laugh.
Ranz and Matheson consider their ancient bushes as living companions, rather than food-making machines. “Remember the Bible’s injunction regarding ‘dominion’ over the Earth?” Ranz muses. “We see that not as control, but responsibility and guardianship.”
Part of that mission means practicing “low-impact farming that embraces what’s here,” Matheson says. The morning I visit, they’re meeting with an expert to learn how to boost natural pollinators, such as native bumblebees, with methods like adding indigenous flowering plants that draw the bees to the farm. They encourage purslane, a volunteer edible succulent, to grow as a ground cover, and harvest and sell it as a gourmet salad green.
As organic farmers, they use no industrial pesticides or herbicides—the fungicide spray they use is organic and made predominantly from oregano leaves. They utilize organic mulch for fertilizer and weed control and simply drop old pruned-out canes in the middle of the row to be shredded by mowers and return to the soil. Most weeds are removed by hand by Ranz and a couple of long-term Bow Hill workers.
The fresh harvest, happening now, is first undertaken by local professional pickers, mainly Mixteco people of Mexican heritage who have been living in the Skagit Valley and doing this work for decades. A few weeks later, once the best berries have been hand-picked, towering mechanical pickers crawl the rows to bring in the majority of the harvest (90 percent).
These berries are frozen and used throughout the year to make the value-added products from which Bow Hill derives most of its revenue—blueberry juice, powder (made from skins leftover from the juicing process), dried and pickled berries, marinade, and confiture (jam), among other delights that the farm ships to customers across the country.
Blueberry production is a big deal in the 21st century, as the berries aren’t only prized for their unique flavor, but for their immense nutritional benefits as well. They’re packed with antioxidants (highest in flavonoids of all major fruits), immune boosters (anthocyanins), vitamins (36 percent of the daily vitamin K recommendation), and more. They help lower blood pressure, prevent diabetes, limit the free radicals that cause aging—you get the idea. These little blue wellness capsules have been ushered into the superfoods club with great fanfare. The juice, especially, is a hugely popular nutritional supplement; Bow Hill has several hundred subscribers to its juice club who receive regular monthly shipments.
Last, but not least: U-pick operations are open to the public on weekends in August, so anyone can try out the two-finger tickle. I have a go and discover it’s as easy as Ranz says. And does a palmful of two-finger-tickle berries picked two seconds earlier taste as good as you would imagine? Totally.
The Thrill of Blueberry Hill
I found my thrill
on Blueberry Hill…
The moon stood still
On Blueberry Hill
And lingered till
My dream came true
So sang Fats Domino in his 1956 hit.
I ask Ranz if he knows the song. He does, but can he sing it?
“Well, I doubt it. Maybe I should learn.” He grins wryly.
Set along a side road amid the Skagit Valley’s potato, wheat, and cabbage fields, in a farming district that dates back at least 150 years, with its namesake low ridge shouldering the blue sky just northeast of the farm, Bow Hill’s serene aura is palpable. A natural slough wraps around the property, draping its boundary with gossamer silvery willows, and the moist organic mulch cradling the root balls is redolent of old woodlands.
Bow Hill summer workers are building a wattle fence out front using blueberry canes pruned from the bushes last year. In the farm kitchen, workers are marveling over the glistening new stainless steel hydraulic bladder press that turns, on average, 1,000 pounds of frozen berries into juice for bottling each week.
The new juice press illustrates the fact that, while organic farming is a business with a mission, it’s still a business.
“Believe me, Bow Hill products are in demand,” says Ben Goe, long-time produce manager at the Skagit Valley Food Co-op in Mount Vernon, Washington. “Some of their value-added items are at pretty high price points, like the juice—but they sell very well.
“We’re getting our first shipment of fresh berries Monday [July 26], and we can’t wait. This is an important part of community life here.”
Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill dream come true was actually a love song. But then, organic farming is a love song as well. Farmers such as Ranz and Matheson sing it for all of us.
RECIPE: Blueberry-Basil Pie
Learn more about Bow Hill at BowHillBlueberries.com. To find an organic blueberry farm near you, consult your local farm market guide or cooperative extension service.
Eric Lucas has a picture of himself as a toddler picking wild blueberries (low bush) in the Pennsylvania woods. He’s a retired associate editor at Alaska Beyond Magazine and lives on a small farm on a remote island north of Seattle, where he grows organic hay, beans, apples, and squash.