Featured in Foothill Magazine

Blue Acres yields biggest crop yet

By: Gloria Young, Reporter
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It’s a sunny spring day. A light breeze gently blows stems laden with fruit ranging in color from a soft green, to pink to pastel blue to a deep almost purple hue as blueberries ripen on a hillside at Blue Acres Blueberry Farm in Newcastle. From a distance, they almost look like grapes.

They are Althea Frankel’s “babies,” along with her llamas and dogs.

Frankel planted the approximately one acre of blueberries about nine years ago, putting in 100 to 200 plants each year until she reached about 850. She chose blueberries because of their well documented health benefits.

As it turned out, the property also had soil with the right pH balance.

“(Blueberries) like acid soil ...,” she said. “I think the water is the secret — if your water is really clean and doesn’t have a lot of selenium and alkaline. Our soil is pretty good. It grows beautiful mandarins, oranges and azaleas.”

She practices organic farming, fertilizing with soybean mulch or organic liquified fish.

Gophers and organic farming methods have reduced the total to about 700 plants. But the yield continues to grow. This year’s crop is the biggest ever, she said.

Harvest time begins in late May and lasts through June, occasionally even stretching into early July. During June, Frankel sells the blueberries at the farmers market in Auburn.

“We pick when they are ripe and at their peak,” she said. “You have to know what it looks like when they reach that peak color. It’s usually a dull deep blue with a powdery look.”

She grows a half a dozen varieties, among them Jubilee, O’Neal, Sunshine, Emerald and Jewel.

Emerald is one of her favorites. The Jewel variety grows very large.

“When we start blending is when I can start selling,” she said. “The O’Neals ripen first and the others follow.”

The berry varieties look similar. But tasting them directly off the vine reveals subtle to distinct differences — all delicious but ranging from slightly tart to very sweet.

Tending the blueberry crop has offered some challenges but Frankel has persevered with great success.  

Weather is always a factor. Last January’s warm days caused some of the plants to blossom way too early. Then, inevitably a freeze hit later in the month, killing off those early blooms.

Birds are another hazard.

“The birds are unbelievable,”  she said. “A couple of years ago, we lost a whole crop.”

To ensure that doesn’t happen again, Frankel and her husband, Merrill, recently finished installing netting to protect the whole blueberry field.

Frankel’s blueberries have become a favorite at the farmers’ market over the years, with many customers who pre-order from week to week.

“It’s really great to know that people really do appreciate good fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Most of the people who come to the farmers market know about good quality fruits and vegetables. I just enjoy the people and just knowing that I have a good quality product.”

Customer demand is high for the blueberries, but there are still plenty to enjoy at home.

“I make muffins,” Frankel said. “I have a certified kitchen so I make muffins for the market.”

She also makes a blueberry crumble.

“It is a favorite because it is to quick to make. I precook the berries first, almost like a preserve,” she said. “Then I pour (the mixture) into the crumble.”

They blueberries also great on cereal.

“My husband loves them,” she said. “He just eats them by the handful. The dogs love them, too.”