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Tuesday, September 2, 2014     Volume: 15, Issue: 25
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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

True blue: Santa Barbara Blueberries opens u-pick for season

BY WENDY THIES SELL


OUT OF THE BLUE
A mix of several different varieties of fresh blueberries was hand picked at Restoration Oaks Ranch near Buellton.
PHOTO BY WENDY THIES SELL

What some consider America’s ultimate “super food” is now ripe for the picking in Santa Barbara County.

Chock full of antioxidants and nutrients, the blueberry is one of the best food choices one can make. It’s not only extremely healthful, but so tasty, too.

The Santa Barbara Blueberries farm at Restoration Oaks Ranch between Buellton and Gaviota opened on April 26 for the season, which usually peaks in June or July.

Owner Rolland Jacks bought the 950-acre ranch in 2003 and, a couple of years later, planted 40,000 blueberry bushes on 18 acres. Today there are about 30,000 bushes; many have been lost due to severe weather.

A couple of acres are set aside for the local wholesale market, of which Whole Foods is the biggest buyer. The rest of the farm is u-pick—which is exactly what I did during opening week.

The ranch is easily accessible from Highway 101, about 5 miles south of Buellton on the east side of the highway.

My family checked in at the rustic farm stand where we were handed little buckets for collecting our harvest.

A full 40-ounce bucket of blueberries is $18. The farm also sells pre-packaged blueberries, blueberry jam, preserves, and honey.

We enjoyed the three-minute stroll into the canyon, past a pond and a magnificent oak tree, before reaching the flag marking the spot where the ripe berries could be found.

We were there the day before the hot spell in late April/early May, so each bush had some bright blue berries and half had green ones. Five days of 90-degree heat changed that in a hurry.


BERRIES FOR SALE
The Santa Barbara Blueberries farm stand—located just off Highway 101, 5 miles south of Buellton—sells blueberry jam, preserves, honey, and blueberries.
PHOTO BY WENDY THIES SELL

The owners of the farm planted 14 varieties of blueberries so that u-pickers wind up with a blend of berries if they pick from several different bushes. This gives pickers a mix of flavors.

A dozen of the blueberry varieties are Southern Highbush; two are Rabbiteye varieties.

And all of the berries are pesticide-free.

“We’ve never sprayed any of the plants,” said farm manager Ed Seaman, Jacks’ son-in-law. “We’re very natural. We’d be considered sustainable. Even though we don’t spray, we use a soil amendment that we put in the drip system, the irrigation … which is absolutely necessary for the health of the plants.”

Blueberries can fruit multiple times per year.

“It’s not like an apple tree,” Seaman said. “The thing I like about the blueberries is that you actually get multiple generations of fruit through the season.

“Some of the bushes will actually give us fruit as late as December. Not all the bushes, but enough of the bushes that we can send an email out to our folks on the email list and they can come pick,” he added.

This has been the farm’s earliest season ever, Seaman said, “which is kind of a nice consolation prize because the season shut down last year because of the drought.”


FRUIT PRESERVATION
The 18-acre blueberry farm at Restoration Oaks Ranch is covered with bird nets so that only humans are able to taste the delicious berries.
PHOTO BY WENDY THIES SELL

He added that he’s praying for a mild summer.

Blueberries need water year round; the ranch’s drip irrigation system is 22 miles long. There is also an enormous netting system that covers all 30,000 bushes.

“The bird netting is for the birds—they love the blueberries,” Seaman said. “They’ll take a whole field down if you don’t keep them out.”

Birds aren’t the only creatures that have appeared on the rural ranch.

“The ranch has been wonderful. Most of it is wild. We’ve seen mountain lions, juvenile black bears, and coyotes, and peregrine falcons, red tailed hawks, and black tailed deer. All fun!” he said. “Of course, they all like blueberries, unfortunately. Except maybe the mountain lion, but everything, everything likes blueberries!”

U-Pick blueberries
Santa Barbara Blueberries at Restoration Oaks Ranch is located at 1980 U.S. Highway 101 in Gaviota. The blueberry season usually runs through August. The website is santabarbarablueberries.com for picking details. The phone number is 845-4949.

What’s the farm manager’s favorite way to eat blueberries?

“Raw! Handfuls. What I really like is I’ll get some tart berries with some sweet berries, mix them up, and throw them in my mouth. A little bit of tart, a little bit of sweet—it’s awesome,” Seaman exclaimed. “They’re good in ice cream. You throw them on top of something and it makes the difference.”

And here’s another thing to look forward to: Starting in late July, the farm’s acre of raspberries should be ripe and ready for picking, too.

 

Sun food and wine columnist Wendy Thies Sell agrees that raw is best, although her blueberry crisp was delish. Contact her at wthies@santamariasun.com.