The Murphys celebrate a vintage year
This has been a bumper season for blueberries and it's hard to tell who's happier - Susan Murphy or her customers. With the biggest crop since she and her husband, Lynn, planted the bushes at their Chilmark home in 1986, Ms. Murphy has been picking, sorting, selling, and racing to keep up with the demand.
Ms. Murphy says any number of variables - from rainfall to temperature, fog, and sunshine - impact the harvest. But when the combination is right, the berries are spectacular. That's what happened this summer and the bushes are heavy laden, the berries plump and sweeter than ever. "2008 will go down as a vintage year for blueberries," she says.
Ms. Murphy sells the berries at the farm off South Road, at Menemsha Market, and at the Farmer's Market in West Tisbury, where she invariably sells out early. The sweet fruits are a staple at Chilmark Chocolates where they are dipped and sold as a summer confection. Berry lovers can also pick their own, cutting the cost and enjoying a lovely hour or two outdoors in the bargain.
Over the past 22 years the Murphys have raised two sons, Lynn Jr. and Lucas. Mr. Murphy maintains his Menemsha Marine Repair business while Ms. Murphy, the former Chilmark postmistress, is a woodworker. But busy as they were, the couple never neglected their blueberry bushes.
A trim, soft-spoken woman with a wide, warm smile, Ms. Murphy laughs when she recalls how they started growing blueberries almost on a whim. They had purchased a two-acre lot adjacent to their own property to protect it from being developed. Inspired by a story in the December 1984 Massachusetts Farm Bulletin, they came up with the idea of planting blueberries there.
"That's how we became blueberry farmers, without knowing a single thing about farming," she says with a chuckle. "We thought we'd send our kids to college with blueberry money."
The Murphys read everything they could about berry growing and got tips from Island farmers. They enlisted Robin Hyde to clear the land and make it ready for planting. Then they headed off-Island in an old Gay Head Sightseeing Bus to Furbar Nurseries in Middleboro where they purchased 400 bushes.
Photos by Susan Safford
Looking through a manila folder packed with tattered magazine pages and correspondence, Ms. Murphy comes upon receipts for the site preparation, the bushes, and $26.50 for the round-trip ferry ticket. "Four hundred bushes fit in that bus," she recalls.
What the Murphys lacked in farming experience they made up for in Yankee ingenuity, determination, and faith. They learned that the bushes like a moist location. Because the bushes were to be planted on a rise with sandy soil they dug holes and filled them with peat moss to hold moisture.
"We made them their own environments," says Ms. Murphy.
Most of the bushes thrived and now 320 remain in neat rows stretched across the hillsides near the Murphy home, near several boats awaiting repair by Mr. Murphy. There are five varieties, which ripen at different times, making it possible to pick throughout the summer.
The Murphy's use no pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizer. Many of the bushes are draped in light netting to protect them from birds, the crop's most troublesome pest. Ms. Murphy experimented with various materials, finding green nylon tulle the most effective. One year she used several different colors.
"It looked like a crazy prom out there," she laughs.
"People say these are the best blueberries they ever tasted," Ms. Murphy says. "And I'm not going to argue with them."
She firmly believes the delicious, explode-in-your mouth sweetness results from letting the berries ripen fully on the bush and eating them promptly.
"The most important thing is that the berries turn blue ten days before they're ready to pick. Everything revolves around keeping the birds off for those 10 days."
Ms. Murphy has faithful customers who call her when the season starts, or show up at her door to buy a pint or two. Among them is the gentleman she likes to call "Wall St. Guy," who sometimes has his secretary call from New York to see if the fruit is ready. Recently, he told her that in his family, she is known as "The Blueberry Lady."
Ms. Murphy is always delighted when the crop is abundant, because that means she can keep berries for family use. Much as she and her husband enjoy the fruit, she likes to supply her customers before taking any herself.
With the plentiful harvest this year, Ms. Murphy gets to prepare the blueberry crisp recipe from Louise Tate King's "Vineyard Cookbook," her favorite because "it lets the berries shine." She sprinkles berries on her cereal, and stashes some in the freezer for winter use.
Ms. Murphy says she has tried many methods to keep the berries healthy, productive, and free from pests. Sometimes she relies on books or advice from others, but often she comes up with common sense measures.
"For years we thought we weren't real farmers," she reminisces. "But then I realized a farmer does whatever it takes to solve the problem. So I guess we are real farmers after all."