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Spring freeze is reminder of nature's unpredictability and a farmer's resiliency

This was shaping up to be a banner year for blueberries at Brandywine Farm in Rolla, Mo. As spring unfolded, the bushes filled with blossoms while honeybees from rented hives buzzed around, taking care of their pollination duties.

After five years of renovation on the farm, Pat Marti was eagerly anticipating blueberry season. The U-pick operation had been closed to the public during the painstaking process of removing old, un­productive bushes and replanting new ones. Finally, the farm would be ready when the berries ripened in June.

Mother Nature had other plans. Winter returned with a vengeance the third week of April. Below-freezing tempera­tures settled across the farm for two nights in a row at the absolute worst time for berry development. The unseason­able weather took its toll. Within a couple of weeks, Pat could tell that many of the blooms had been damaged and dropped without forming fruit.

“We were really looking forward to being able to open this year,” Pat said. “I was heartbroken. I had been out to the patch and saw how good everything looked, and in two or three days, everything changed.”

It was another blow in an already devastating year for Pat and her family. Her husband, Larry, an orthopedic surgeon affectionately known as “Doc” to nearly everyone who knew him, died last August at age 82 after suffering two strokes. They were married for 61 years.

The Martis, stalwarts of the Rolla com­munity for more than 44 years, purchased Brandywine Farm in 2010 from previous owners, Dave and Mary Hinze. The Hinzes opened the farm in 1982, but after Dave’s death, Mary decided to retire from the venture.

“We just happened to see that the farm was for sale and hated the idea of it closing down,” Pat said. “It’s such a community tradition. I loved coming here with my kids and grandkids to pick blueberries long before we ever considered buying it. Larry had several cattle farms of his own, so we bought Brandywine for me. It’s always been considered my farm.”

While Pat—called “Nan” by family and friends alike—is ultimately in charge, the blueberry operation has always been a fami­ly affair. She and Larry have five children, 23 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Through the years, many of those family members have helped out on the farm, especially during the short-but-hectic blueberry season from mid-June to mid-July.

Even though Doc Marti worked long hours at Mercy Clinic in Rolla, he would usually be on hand for the busy pick-your-own Saturdays at Brandywine, his wife recalled fondly.

“He never met a stranger and always had a smile. He just genuinely loved people,” Pat said. “He liked to stand at the gate and talk to the customers. He even had a little dance for them as he waved them in.”

“But you didn’t want him picking berries,” she laughed. “You’re supposed to pick them one at a time. He’d pick a handful at a time, which meant he always had half a bucket of berries and a half bucket of other stuff. He was a better greeter than he was a picker.”

Neither one of them had any prior experience with blue­berries, so learning the intricacies of production has been a continual process. Pat said much of the family’s education on the subject comes from attending “Blueberry Schools” hosted regularly by the University of Missouri Extension in Springfield.

“I like working outside, and I like growing things, but blue­berries are a whole different story,” she said. “They’re the hard­est thing I’ve ever grown. I can do vegetables; I can do flowers. I was used to things that I could just put in the ground, add a little fertilizer, and they’d flourish. Blueberries are not that way.”

First of all, she said, blueberries need an acidic soil. The pH should remain between 4.8 and 5.2. They also need lots of wa­ter. Successful blueberry production requires the soil to remain moist but not saturated. Brandywine’s entire 10-acre blueberry patch is dripline irrigated.

Pat follows a labor-intensive fertilization schedule that in­volves applying necessary plant nutrients bush by bush.

“We fertilize three times a year—in the spring, after picking in the summer and then again in the fall,” she explained. “Every few years we’ll take soil samples to see what we need.”

The bushes must be pruned over the winter. And during berry season, there’s a constant battle to keep weeds, insects and birds at bay.

“I love it, but it’s a lot of work,” Pat said. “I’m 82 now, and I just can’t do as much as I used to.”

The customers, however, keep her going. Brandywine Farm has a loyal following, Pat said, many of them tracing back several generations to the era when the Hinzes owned the farm.

“People just love it,” she said. “They come and they sit and they visit. I make blueberry muffins and jam, and they all sell out fast. Families will come and walk through the patch, eating blueberries as they go. We don’t mind. We never weigh the customers when they leave. We only weigh what’s in their bucket.”

The blueberry business flourished for the Martis until about five years ago when they noticed some of the bushes were dying. After soil-testing and talking with Extension specialists, they determined the most likely culprits were the age of the plants and a common fungal disease. The family decided tem­porarily close the farm to the public, allowing time to remove the old bushes, let the soil recover, add fresh topsoil and plant new bushes—nearly 1,000 of them. They have plans to add 600 to 800 more bushes in the next year or two.

“You should be able to get up to 30 years out of a blueberry bush, and some of these had been planted 40 years ago,” Pat said. “It was a long, difficult and expensive process to put all the new bushes in. We bought 2- to 3-year-old bushes, which can run anywhere from $6 to $8 each. You don’t want to start picking from them until they’re about 5 years old. This was going to be the year that they would have been ready.”

As a blueberry farmer, Pat said nothing has been as disap­pointing as watching all that hard work succumb to this spring’s freeze. But like her, the bushes are resilient. The Marti family expects this season to yield a limited number of blueberries, which they will likely harvest and sell at the farmers market in Rolla rather than opening for public picking.

“My dad always taught me to do the best you can do and work hard to make things happen,” Pat said. “So, we’re not going to give up. I don’t give up. And Larry wouldn’t want me to. He’d love to see us being able to pick again. It’s worth all the challenges.”

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MFA takes part in federally funded projects to address economic, environmental concerns on the far.

Production agriculture and conservation often seem to be at odds with each other, but their interdependence will be highlighted through two new projects funded by the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in Missouri. MFA Incorporated is a partnering organization in both initiatives.

Through the RCPP, an award of $930,377 was earmarked for a precision farm data and strategic buffer placement project, which will create and implement management strategies that target unprofitable cropland acres. Goals are to enhance water and soil health, provide essen­tial habitat for pollinators and grassland bird species on agricultural land, and help producers avoid the need for natural resource regulatory requirements.

The funding amount will be for five years and will be used to provide cost-share to landown­ers in support of applying eligible practices. Missouri counties included in the project area are Saline, Lafayette, Pettis, Macon, Randolph, Chariton and Linn.

“This project is a great example of how true collaboration among our Missouri conservation and agriculture partners can help us all better serve producers in ways that can address both economic and conservation concerns on their farms,” said Lisa Potter, Farm Bill Coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, the lead partner on this project.

Other contributing organizations are the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Mis­souri Corn Merchandising Council, Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, Bayer, Missouri Rural Water Association, The Nature Conservancy, Missouri River Bird Observatory, Associated Electric Cooperative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Fertilizer Institute.

Adam Jones, MFA Incorporated conservation specialist, said MFA’s role in the project will be to capture and analyze farm imagery and row-crop yield data, and then make recommen­dations for converting unproductive areas to a diverse mix of native warm-season grasses and forbs. He said a website will be set up later this year to provide more information and a mechanism for producers to express interest in participating.

“Growers will be eligible for a special pool of RCPP conservation dollars to imple­ment the practices that we recommend,” Jones explained. “And all the data we use to make those plans will be housed with MFA, not with the government.”

That’s one of the main differences between other federal conservation programs and the RCPP, which was created under the 2014 Farm Bill. RCPP projects must be under-taken as public-private partnerships among a variety of stakeholders. Participating organizations are expected to provide significant matching funds for the project, including in-kind contributions such as monitoring, conservation planning and producer assistance—like the services MFA is providing. RCPP funding is awarded competitively based on proposals submitted by partnering organizations.

MFA is participating in another RCPP project proposed by the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks to support the protection of clean drinking water in Southwest Missouri. The RCPP funding for this project totaled $2.1 million, which will provide significant cost-share opportunities for producers and land­owners in the James River Watershed upstream of Lake Springfield for activities such as:

  • Planting trees along waterways
  • Fencing infrastructure for prescribed grazing systems
  • Improving wildlife cover and habitat
  • Forest and soil health improvements
  • Voluntary conservation easements and land rentals

The actions are estimated to impact more than 150,000 Missourians, improve the local farming economy, help Springfield and Greene Coun­ty meet federal water quality requirements and improve aquatic ecosystems along the James River headwaters.

“For our part, MFA will be providing extra out­reach on grazing conservation, perhaps by hosting some field days and generally encouraging prac­tices that meet the project goals,” Jones said. “Landry Jones, our conservation grazing specialist in that region, will have a key role in those efforts.”

Along with MFA, other contributing partners in this RCPP project are Missouri De­partment of Conservation, Missouri Rural Water Association, Ozark Greenways, James River Basin Partnership, Greene County Soil and Water Conservation District, Greene County and the city of Springfield.

This year, across the U.S., more than $330 million in RCPP funding was awarded to 85 locally driven projects, including four in Missouri and several others in surrounding states. For more information, visit the program’s website at mfa.ag/rcpp.

Landowners who may qualify to participate in the Missouri-based projects are en­couraged to contact their local MDC private land conservationist or MFA’s Adam Jones and Landry Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details.

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In this May 2021 Issue

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