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By ANNETTE HARVISON
It’s blueberry time in Perry County and ripe fruit is abundant and ready for picking.
Many people have a few blueberry bushes at home, but for those who get their berries at the grocery store or corner market, there’s a whole process to get them from the bush to the mixing bowl. Great Southern Farms in Richton specializes in blueberries and has been a family run business since Malcolm Edwards took a chance on farming years ago.
The Edwards were happy to give a tour of their facility, and show off the work that goes into getting berries from the field to the grocer’s shelf. Malcolm started the farm in 1990 when he planted 20 acres of blueberries. Since then, the farm has grown and relocated, and a growing line of Edwards are there nearly every day.
Malcolm was busy in the fields when I arrived, but he had put his daughter-in-law Jennifer in charge of speaking with me. Jennifer is married to Malcolm’s son Jeremy, and the couple has three children that help at the farm. Jennifer said she remembers the early years on the Edwards’s farm, and she is glad to be a part of it, as well as her children. She was a nurse when she married into the family, but when the farm expanded, she went to it full time.
“I think for the most part we get along,” Jennifer said about the family working together.
Malcolm began growing blueberries after talking to the MSU Extension. They were seeking interested farmers, and Malcolm was one of them. In the beginning, he didn’t have coolers. He was part of the Waynesboro Co-op, but in time, his production grew. Malcolm was ready to expand.
“Malcolm and Jeremy went to Michigan to research other facilities,” Jennifer said. “They wanted to learn the set up, and they wanted to make sure they got it right.”
The Edwards moved the farm to its current location in 2008 due to its growth. What started out as a 20-acre investment has grown into 150 acres with several varieties of berries a packing plant on site. The farm is no longer part of a co-op, though Malcolm hasn’t ever forgotten his beginnings. Local farmers just starting out sometimes will call upon the elder Edwards for advice for their farms.
“Now we help others trying to learn their way,” Jennifer said.
Great Southern Farms does everything from picking blueberries to packing and shipping blueberries. Malcolm’s granddaughter, Leslie, walked me through the plant to show their operations, and there is a lot of work that goes into getting blueberries to the grocer’s shelf. Leslie is a school teacher, but during her off time, she enjoys working on the farm. She said she didn’t like working on the farm during her teenage years, but as she gets older, she values and appreciates it more.
“Teaching lets me be here during the summer,” Leslie said. “And since school has been out, this is where I’ve been.”
Leslie knows a lot about the operations on the farm. She said it started out smaller than what it grown into, and it takes a lot of work every day to keep things running smoothly. The farm uses hand pickers as well as mechanical pickers, and loads from each are brought into the plant to be weighed. From there, the blueberries are then moved to a cooler before they make their way through the plant.
“We put the berries in the cooler when they come out of the fields because we have to get the field heat out of them,” Leslie said. “These coolers cool them to 68 degrees.”
Great Southern Farms packages berries from other local growers as well, and the coolers are used to store all the berries until ready for packing. Once the berries have cooled, the sorting process begins. What was once a tedious and slow process has become much more efficient with modern technology, and Leslie said those additions have been a big help for production. One part of the operations that hasn’t needed an upgrade, though, is folding boxes for shipping. Even this job is done on site.
“We have machines that check the blueberries on the conveyor belt,” Jennifer said. “Cameras and lasers scan them for color and softness.”
As the blueberries are separated on the conveyor belt and continue down the line, workers inspect the blueberries to gather any the machine has missed. Leslie explained soft blueberries aren’t good for packaging as they will be overripe by the time they make it to the grocery store. The berries continue down the line to a packaging belt. The blueberries are dropped into a container by weight. Leslie said the packaging process has become much more efficient with upgrades as well.
“At one time we had one really big funnel the blueberries went into,” Leslie said. “It would drop one cup at a time. This machine packs by weight and packs various size containers.”
“We package under Great Southern Farms and Sunbell,” Leslie said.
The farm sells fresh blueberries at the site. The family said many people in the area like to make jam, and they sell a lot of blueberries for that. Most of the blueberries packaged and shipped from Great Southern Farms won’t make it to our local grocery stores. Jennifer said they have a marketing company, and they decide where the blueberries go.
“We have a marketing company in Chicago,” Jennifer said. “A lot of our blueberries get sent there and then distributed.”
The family enjoys working together. Throughout the visit, several members of the family were out and about checking on various operations and doing their part to keep the day going on track. Malcolm spends much of his time out in the fields along with sons Jeremy and Dustin. Malcolm’s grandchildren take part in it as well, and they are excited to be part of the team. With school out, it has given them responsibilities and purpose. And Jennifer said they were lucky to have the extra hands this year.
“We employ a lot of high school students,” Jennifer said. “If they hadn’t been out, we wouldn’t have had anybody for the early picking.”
It’s hard work, and they have to watch the weather every day during picking season. Jennifer said they are in the peak of the season right now, but work on the farm goes on all year long. Some days they are there every day of the week. And each member of the family knows their favorite blueberries.
“The kids won’t eat blueberries from the store,” Jennifer said. “They know their favorite varieties.”
Malcolm Edwards had hope and a vision when he started out with a few blueberry bushes 30 years ago. He may not have known where the path would take him, but he knew where he wanted to go. With patience, hard work and a great family surrounding him, he has created a lasting legacy.