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Finding your thrill

Pick-your-own berries at Blueberry Hill in Edom
Written by Clayton Maxwell.

TH Blueberries Final2

I sat cross-legged in the sandy dirt at the foot of a blueberry bush at a pick-your-own farm called Blueberry Hill Farms in Edom. It was a hot mid-afternoon in June—prime picking time in Texas—but a breeze blew through the long, green rows of bushes.

Blueberry Hill Farms is in Edom, 72 miles east of Dallas. Blueberry season generally runs June 1-July 31, but sometimes starts late May. Seasonal hours: 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 903/852-6175.

The berry clumps were plentiful down there, and they fell into my bucket by the dozens. Around me, I heard lively exhortations from my children and other families: things like “Don’t eat, Bobby—pick!” and “Whooaa, look at this one! It’s the fattest blueberry ever!” But I was undistracted. Plop, plop, plop—a state of focused attention, just me and the bush, one purple handful of berries at a time.

If you really want to fill your bucket, blueberry-picking requires a shift in perspective. When you get down low, on your knees or even sitting down, that’s often when you find the big blue clumps that you can pick by the handful. To me, that’s more rewarding than the painstaking one-berry-at-a-time method that works if you stand around at eye-level.

From the second I walked past the red barn of the Blueberry Hill Farms Country Store with my bucket in hand, I knew my family and I were going to like it here. Perhaps it was the friendly East Texas drawl of the guy working the concession stand on the side porch. “We’ve got sausages and we’ve got blueberry ice cream, but we sold out of the blueberry donuts,” he yelled out to a co-worker as he sweated behind the donut machine. “Biggest day of the season! Tomorrow we may have nothing left!” I better get picking, I thought.

I didn’t know then that this friendly fellow behind the fryer was Chuck Arena, who owns the farm with his wife, Sherri, and their three daughters, who are now students at the University of Texas. Nor did I need to worry about a depleted berry supply. Chuck was talking about the packages of pre-picked berries; there was still a gorgeous blue bounty of berries out on the bushes for those of us who like to pick our own. And the donuts may have been gone, but there was still the farm’s famous blueberries-and-cream pie, blueberry ice cream, and about 20 varieties of jams to choose from. My kids and I would in no way be deprived of a sugar buzz. 

We got to picking, which, with a nine-and five-year-old, is a mix of high-spirited competition (“How full is YOUR bucket?”) and relaxed concentration, as they eventually slipped into their own rhythm of focused picking and eating. (Chuck doesn’t seem to mind if you eat a few berries before your buckets have been weighed and paid for.) And we had picked for a full hour before the charm had worn off for the kids and they took to running through the rows of bushes—we only saw the signs asking them NOT to do that afterwards. Then, after we had finished, with our berries paid for and bagged, I had the profound satisfaction of gobbling delicious, fat berries while the kids licked their quickly melting blueberry ice cream. If there’s one thing in this world you can gorge on and not feel too guilty about, it’s blueberries.

We are not the only ones who think that picking our own berries is a fun thing to do as a family. In fact, Chuck and Sherri Arena’s own sweet memories of family trips to pick-your-own farms in Mexia planted the seed for them to buy this berry farm. The Arenas had owned a telecommunications company in Richardson for decades, but they’d dreamed of having their own farm. In 1999, Sherri saw an ad in a Dallas newspaper advertising the sale of an established blueberry farm just outside of Edom. The couple headed out to tour the property and made a deposit on it that night, even though they’d only seen it in the dark.

“We’d read a book on pick-your-own farms, but that was it,” Chuck says. “The day we closed on this place, the former owner asked me if I knew how to drive a tractor, and I said no, and she just barrel-laughed. And I thought, ‘Well, if I can do telephones, I can drive a tractor.’”

The little farm that is home to the store, concessions, and pick-your-own bushes covers about 10 acres, and there are another 46 acres nearby where professional pickers work. Chuck has a team of employees whom he calls “super pickers”; they fill whole buckets in minutes. The professional pickers arrive early and pick for hours so there are plenty of berries for sale.

Blueberry Hill Farms opens at 7 a.m. daily during picking season, and Arena says that early mornings are by far the best time to pick. “It’s beautiful here in the morning; spider webs are strung across the fields from bush to bush. Those spiders do it every night. I don’t know how they do it.”

After more than 16 years, the luster of running their own blueberry farm has not worn off for Chuck and Sherri. Every year is different, they say, and there are always new challenges and more to learn. Each year, they attend a berry conference in Michigan, and they experiment with different varieties and now grow blackberries, too. They have learned to pay close attention to the land and the weather.

“A farmer lives by the weather,” says Chuck. “In 2014, we had three days when the temperature dropped down to 18 degrees—first time in 15 years. We lost 90 percent of our blueberry blooms. But the blackberries, which bloom later than blueberries, saved the day for us. Every year is different. And I like it more now than ever.”

Indeed, it does seem that Chuck has found his thrill. After a full Saturday of running the store, making donuts, and tending to the many visitors during this June rush, Chuck was still happy to sit at a picnic table and talk berries. When we finally parted ways, my family and I savored our lingering sugar buzz and happily imagined how we would turn our big bags of berries into multiple blueberry pies.

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