Living the country life

Published 6:10 pm Friday, July 5, 2019

Isle of Wight County family opens ‘u-pick’ blueberry farm


blueberry acre farm

Gabriel Solis 10, picks ripened blueberries from one of the many bushes on his family’s farm. Stephen Faleski | Tidewater News

When Suffolk native Ray Solis and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Ashley Credle started planning to move in together about two years ago, the couple hadn’t intended to buy a blueberry farm.

They just knew they wanted to reside near Windsor, where Ashley already lived, so they could enroll their children, Gabriel, Faith and Haidyn — now ages 10, 12 and 13, respectively — in the Windsor area Isle of Wight County schools. Ray, however, had been envisioning a more typical suburban residential setting. So, when J.M. Erwin Sr. offered to rent out the farmhouse on his property on Duck Town Road near the Walters community just a few miles south of Windsor — which included an empty acre of farmland and a blueberry patch — Ray admitted he and Ashley “weren’t in agreement” at first on whether to accept.

But they did, and now, Ray, a self-described “city boy who wanted to learn how to work with his hands” says he couldn’t imagine going back to the city.

“I was helping out to take care of it [the blueberry patch], learning how to fertilize,” Ray said. “About two years into me renting from Mr. Erwin, he said the neighbors really liked us and he would like if we bought the place.”

In December 2018, Solis and his family did exactly that — to include the house, empty field and blueberry patch — after a “meeting of the minds on the value of everything,” as Erwin described the negotiation.

“It had gotten so big and so labor-intensive my wife and I just couldn’t handle it anymore,” Erwin said of his decision to first rent out and then ultimately sell his blueberry farm. “Both of us are close to 80. We were looking for a way to keep the blueberries coming and not lose the customers.”

Erwin added that as of the date he and his wife sold the property, the blueberry patch contained between 900 to 1,000 plants.

“They’re doing good,” Erwin said. “They’re a very personable family. The whole family gets out there and works. We’ve helped them a lot, given them pointers.”

The Erwins still live nearby, having relocated to another house on Duck Town Road, and have offered to occasionally help with some of the labor too, but so far, “we haven’t needed to,” Erwin said.

Since taking over the property, Solis and his family have started a “u-pick” operation, open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day of the week, where visitors can pick and purchase pints of blueberries for $2, quarts for $4 and gallons for $16. The family also offers pre-picked pints for $3, quarts for $6 and gallons for $24, as well as packages of frozen blueberries. Ashley, Ray said, figured out a way to freeze the blueberries that involves separating each blueberry out on a pan so that when they are placed in the freezer, “it’s a solid, hard ball, they’re not all mushy.” The family runs its blueberry business out of a red shed on the property they’ve turned into a small shop. The address is 5330 Duck Town Road, Zuni.

Solis has also had success in selling his family’s blueberries at Grayson & Emma’s Garden Spot outside of Courtland in Southampton County. On June 17, Ray said he received a call from Neil Drake, one of the owners of Grayson & Emma’s, asking for three gallons of blueberries to resell.

“By 5:30 p.m. [that evening] he called me to tell me he needed four more gallons,” Ray said.

He also recalled Drake had remarked upon seeing the size of the blueberries, “Those aren’t blueberries, they’re grapes!”

Erwin confirmed that in the 10 or so years he and his wife owned the property, this year, being the first under the Solis family’s management, is “the first year they’ve been that large.”

“We’ve gotten an analysis of the soil every year, and know exactly what to put out,” Erwin said. “It’s really worked this year.”

Ray added that his family doesn’t use any types of pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. As for the empty acre next to the blueberry patch, he plans on farming that too, beginning next year, and obtaining beehives by sometime this summer through a state co-op program.

When not on the farm, Ray can be found at his day job at Blake Ford in Franklin, and, yes, he’s taken some of his home-grown blueberries along to sell to his coworkers. He added that he’s only worked at Blake for about the past 90 days, having previously worked at a bigger dealership in Chesapeake.

Ashley, he said, also used to work for a car dealership, but now runs the “u-pick/we-pick” operation with her children.

“I don’t think if I didn’t work for Mr. Blake [Blythe] at Blake Ford that’d I’d be able to keep up [with the farm],” Ray said. “It’s nice to be at a dealer who’s well known in the community, and has the reputation of family first.”