Lush bushes loaded with plump, blue-gray berries are one of the South’s most anticipated signs of summer. For Tallapoosa County’s Rod Havens, the stocked shrubs at his Camp Hill farm double as a welcome mat for new and returning customers.
“Blueberry Havens is home to 40 acres of blueberries, or about 20,000 bushes, in six fields,” said Havens, 63, who began cultivating the 220-acre timber and blueberry farm about 30 years ago after retiring as a counselor at Auburn City Schools. “People from across the Southeast drive to my farm because they really love the blueberries. I’ve been fortunate to watch some families grow up from summer to summer.”
While he may be known around east Alabama as the Blueberry Man, Havens’ hobby-turned-livelihood is something he had to learn.
“There were farms around our home [in Illinois], but Dad was a blue-collar telephone company man,” he said. “During my 20s, I started working on my doctorate at Auburn and moved just outside the city. In my free time, I enjoyed gardening and working in the dirt. I guess the dream of living off the land blossomed from there.”
To accommodate his dreams, he moved to a more rural area and never looked back. There’s just something special about the rolling hills, winding dirt roads and Mitchell Creek that surround his land, he explained.
“The land is serene, but it’s also ideal for fruit trees. Because of what my work schedule was back then, blueberries seemed a perfect fit,” Havens said. “I could plant and tend to the bushes and the land while school was in, and blueberry season hit its peak while I was on summer break. It was something I continued to look forward to year after year. I was like the students, I suppose… I couldn’t wait for summer.”
Farming comes with its own risks, and Havens said an initial lack of interest in the now-popular fruit could have been Blueberry Havens’ downfall. Thirty years ago, few farmers grew blueberries, and the average consumer wasn’t aware of their health benefits. Still, he continued expanding the farm, persevering with faith and foresight.
“It’s something you have to love to be successful,” said Havens, Tallapoosa County Farmers Federation’s first vice president. “You have to love the land, love getting your hands dirty and love working outside in God’s splendor. You also have to work through the trying times. Something I learned from my years as a counselor is how a positive mental outlook can translate well into life.”
His original plan was to harvest berries for wholesale, but his strategy shifted in the years leading up to the trees bearing substantial volumes of fruit. Havens said the change became a blessing because he has a genuine love of sharing his own “haven” with others. Over the years, the bounty of blueberries increased alongside Blueberry Havens’ U-pick customer base, and additional hands were needed.
Odessa Lashley, a customer-turned-picker, has helped Havens pick every summer for more than two decades. Like a lot of customers, Lashley’s picking has become a family affair. For a few days a week during prime harvest season, she plucks gallons of the ripest berries with sister, Mary, and her son, Tommy. Knowing which berries are bucket-worthy, she says, is an art.
“A lot of folks just see blue and yank ‘em off, but that’s not the way to do it,” Lashley said. “The best berries know when they’re ready. They’re deep blue, and they practically fall off the vine and into the bucket. Like anything in life, if ya have to force it, it ain’t right.”
A bulk of what the Lashleys pick helps Havens fulfill his we-pick orders. For customers who don’t have time (or a desire) to pick their own, Blueberry Havens offers freshly picked, washed and packaged blueberries for $14 a gallon, the equivalent of roughly eight pints, or 6 pounds of fruit. Meanwhile, U-pick customers pay $7 a gallon. The farm also offers Rabbit eye, Tift Blue and Premiere blueberry bushes for $5 each. Havens recommends customers plant two kinds together for cross-pollination.
Low prices and word-of-mouth are certainly a factor in the farm’s success, but Havens believes the “treasure hunt” mentality behind gathering one’s own food entices more people to take to the fields. For Lashley, it’s more.
“Life is sweet, but it can be short,” she said. “It’s best to enjoy every minute you can. I’m nearly 86 years old, and some of the happiest times in my life have been on these hills picking blueberries.”