School librarian moonlights as berry grower in summer

AFP Correspondent

KENDALL PARK (July 15, 2017) — It looks like a typical suburban back yard, but inside the fence at Pitspon Farm are intensively grown berries, some in raised bed and some in pots.
Michael Brown is a school librarian during the school year and a berry farmer on nights and weekends and during school vacations.
The Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey asked him to teach other small producers about his suburban farm, so about a dozen interested farmers gathered on a muggy night behind Brown’s house to look at berries in his one-third acre backyard.
Brown grows familiar berries but some are less popular than raspberries or blackberries.
One variety the visitors hadn’t heard of is haskap, a berry from Japan. It is a member of the honeysuckle family and very productive.
“I don’t get individual requests for them,” Brown admitted. He said they are a sweet-tart berry much favored by chefs. They are a berry that requires two cultivars.
He also grows elderberries which are in demand by breweries and vintners. Elderberry wine may be most famous as the vehicle for poison in the play and movie “Arsenic and Old Lace,” but it is actually a popular wine. The berries are also in demand for making jam and baked goods, Brown said.
“Nobody eats elderberries fresh,” he noted, “and they are very perishable.”
Herbalists purchase elderberries and elderflowers medicinally.
“The flowers don’t ship,” Brown said, “they have to be picked and delivered.” Customers make a simple syrup out of them, he added. He said the Bent Spoon ice cream shop used them in ice cream with blueberries and New Ark Farms bought some for a variety of Iron Bound Cider.
A lot of people don’t have expertise with fresh elderflower, Brown noted, although they may be familiar with the flowers after they are dried. “People do buy them fresh to play with, to get an idea of what they can do with them,” he said.
There is a large market for gooseberries in northeast Philadelphia, he said. Russian, Eastern European, Scandinavian and German communities are always looking for fresh gooseberries.
Some Russian markets even sell frozen gooseberries.
Brown says he has never frozen them.
He said people have preferences among the different varieties, some are sweeter, others more tart.
Brown also grows red currants. “People ask for black currants but I can’t grow them,” he said. Black currants were outlawed because of the pine blister. “We could grow them as cultivars until a couple of years ago.”
He said the Whole Earth Center wants more red currants than he could provide.
Aronia berries are rumored to be a new “superfood.”
Related to the chokeberry, they are cold-hardy and resistant to pests and disease.
Brown said they are “not a dessert berry.”
They are astringent, but lose some of that when frozen.
“Some people put them in smoothies,” he said, adding a brewery was interested in buying some. There is also a market among the Polish population who like cherry leaves.
Brown tried goji berries and said they did well the first year, but don’t seem to be coming back.
When the gojis failed, he thought about trying the Schisandra berry, a strictly medicinal Chinese berry that literally means “five-flavor berry:” sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent.
He said they are rumored to be a good tea for “women’s problems.”
He has also thought of trying to find a medicinal market for blackberry leaves.
Blackberries and raspberries are Brown’s two most common berries.
He promptly freezes his raspberries which he has a steady market for.
Pricing is one of the most difficult parts of the job, Brown said.
He said the New York State Berry Growers have a survey through Cornell University which gives some guidance.
Brown noted it’s very difficult to hire labor or even bring in an intern with a small berry operation because of the costs of workman’s compensation insurance.
“I tried to be as legit as possible,” he said about his suburban lot. He has insurance and a tax identification number.
He asked the local zoning officer and was told if no one complained he wouldn’t need a variance.
Since he uses no machinery and has a fenced yard, he said he doesn’t get complaints.
He said he is not Certified Organic because it isn’t worth the effort for such a small operation, but he uses no chemicals, he gets his compost from his municipality and “I steal leaves from towns where they bag them,” but he says he is careful where he sources any additives.