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Coosaw Farms promotes blueberries for diversity to its signature watermelons

FAIRFAX, SC — On June 2, Coosaw Farms finished its blueberry harvest and the very next day started its watermelon harvest. Never a dull moment.

Or as Angela L. O’Neal, director of sustainability and marketing, and daughter of the owners and founders, put it, “We’re a lean, fast-paced organization. We lost 60 percent of our blueberry crop from the mid-March weather this year. We’re hoping for a strong watermelon season.”

O’Neal’s parents, Bradley and Louise O’Neal, started growing watermelons here in 1986. This is a family business, one of the leading mid-Atlantic watermelon producers in the United States. Today, Bradley and Louise, Angela and her brother Brad, run Coosaw Farms, named after the nearby Coosawhatchie River.

Diversification is a trend among growers, as evidenced by the old adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” or as Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, said, “Growers all tell me, ‘I don’t have to go to Las Vegas to gamble. I farm.’”

Coosaw Farms began searching for a crop to complement its signature seedless watermelons in 2009. It tried several varieties of Southern Highbush blueberries through the next eight years.

“We kept track of the results and modified our growing and processing practices as we went along,” O’Neal said.

In 2016, Coosaw built a special facility to chill, process and pack its blueberry crop. The cooled facility steps the blueberries down from summer field temperatures to about 50 degrees, where they are packed and then further cooled to 34-36 degrees. Loading docks are also chilled.

This year, Coosaw is farming about 4,000 acres, of which 350 are watermelons and 185 are blueberries. The other 3,465 acres are mainly in rotation for watermelons through row crops, along with Napa and flathead green cabbage.

It takes three years for a blueberry bush to begin producing fruit. The operation is high-tech, with drip irrigation (water and nutrients) and soil moisture sensors. The blueberry crop is in full harvest, normally from mid-April to mid-June.

According to Will Chavez, packinghouse manager, the new machinery can process and pack up to 2 million pounds a season. “We have multiple quality checkpoints that began in the field and carry through packing and shipping.”

Chavez pointed out that blueberries are carefully hand-selected at harvest for coloring, shape, ripeness and quality. Also, the machine separates stems, leaves, and small berries.

“The technology on the processing lines checks each berry for firmness and color,” said Chavez. “All blueberries also go through visual inspection before being filled into clamshells.”