Coast Life: Farming the state fruit in the Blueberry Capital of Mississippi

In the blueberry capital of Mississippi, images of blueberries can be found around just about every corner.
Published: Jun. 5, 2023 at 9:25 PM CDT
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POPLARVILLE Miss. (WLOX) - In the blueberry capital of Mississippi, images of blueberries can be found around just about every corner. On Saturday, the newly proclaimed state fruit will be celebrated in Poplarville with the “Blueberry Jubilee.”

“Blueberries taste really good and they bring people together,” said Natalie Wilkinson, a Poplarville resident.

Tony Pervel is doing his part to celebrate the tiny blue fruit. He’s restored a home built in the 1800′s, painted it blue and is opening a bed and breakfast called the Blueberry Manor.

“They had a previous Blueberry Inn in Poplarville; I wanted to bring something back to represent the Blueberry Festival and the state capital of the blueberry,” said Pervel.

The blue magic happens outside of town on farms where blueberry trees are planted for as far as you can see.

Donald Vandewerken is co-owner of J&D Blueberry Farms. Just about every day, he’s working blueberries. Vandewerken plants, picks then processes all on the 20-acre farm.

“Anything we can shove a blueberry in we’re going to make it,” said Vandewerken.

That means making pies, popsicles, teas and juice.

“We smash the berries and then we go ahead and bottle them,” Vandewerken said.

Even dogs can enjoy blueberries, the dog treats are some of the farm’s best sellers.

“They’ve already proved that blueberries are good for animals, that’s why a lot of blueberry products go into animal feed now,” said Vandewerken.

With the good comes plenty of challenges.

“On March 19th we had a bumper crop, then on March 20th we had no crop,” Vandewerken said.

Normally, late spring and early summer is prime picking season. The trees would be filled with blueberries in early June, but this year, they’re hard to spot. A late freeze in March wiped out J&D’s crop. That means there will be a shortage of fresh blueberries at this weekend’s Blueberry Jubilee.

“It’s a shame. We lost it all, but that’s farming,” said Vandewerken. “We just hope for 2024.”

Every year brings its own obstacles and they’ve taken a toll on farms. 20 years ago when Vandewerken was just getting started in the business he said you could find about 80 blueberry growers across South Mississippi. Now that number’s down to less than 20. Despite the challenges, he’s not planning on calling quits anytime soon.

“When it gets in your blood we just keep doing it,” said Vandewerken. “It’s a passion, it really has to be a passion to keep doing this kind of work.”

Passion is just one of the ingredients making blueberries a part of the Coast Life.

“Growing blueberries in this region is probably the best area to grow them primarily because of the weather and soil conditions,” said Vandewerken. “For the last 50 years, people on the Gulf Coast have always known that this is the time of year to pick blueberries.”

J&D Blueberry Farms products are sold at farmers markets around the region and the J&D will be represented at the Blueberry Jubilee. For more information, visit: https://jdfarms.us/.

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