By Marlee Moore
A bright burst of yellow towers over deep green bushes heavy with blueberries each May and June in Washington County.
It’s the mechanical picker at Ferguson Blueberry Farm, manned by Jimmy Ferguson, a retired electrician who picked up a penchant for blueberries in 2008.
“One day, I ran into a blueberry farmer, who told me his story about farming blueberries,” said the Chatom native. “It sparked my interest, so of course, I had to visit his operation. After that, I was hooked on blueberry farming. The next step was to convince my wife, Katie, to accompany me on this venture.”
Thirteen years later, the 23-acre farm is booming with 15 cultivars of rabbiteye and Southern highbush blueberries.
Experimenting with varieties allows the Fergusons to pick the best plants for their soil type and extend harvest. They’re also searching for hearty berries that hold up to mechanical picking and quality berries consumers will enjoy.
Reaching this point was a labor of love. The Fergusons said Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (AFVGA) conferences were invaluable for troubleshooting issues. Visiting other farmers for information was a boon, too.
“Jimmy and Katie are great, welcoming folks who are passionate about what they do,” said AFVGA Executive Director Hunter McBrayer. “Specialty crop production is small in Alabama compared to other states but is growing. It’s great to see farmers like the Fergusons invest in high-tech machinery so they can operate on a larger scale.”
The Fergusons’ mechanical picker uses a series of rotating, flexible, vibrating spindles to shake fruit from the bushes, often at night when the berries are cooler and less fragile.
Trays of berries are then taken to the processing facility on the farm. A combination of conveyors, computerized sorters and manual labor inspect the fruit for quality. Leaves and stems are removed, as are damaged, burst or under ripe berries. The best berries are plump (no matter the size), deep purple or blue-black, and have a velvety matte finish called a bloom.
The fruit is then packed in plastic clamshells, boxed and distributed to consumers across the U.S.
The Fergusons have owned the land now home to their blueberry operation for over 100 years. Jimmy attributes the farm’s success to his family’s dedication.
“I’m proud to continue the farming process that’s been in my family’s blood for centuries,” Jimmy said.
Katie manages finances and food safety protocols, while Jimmy is responsible for general farm operations. Their son, Brad, and his wife, Stacy, hold off-farm jobs but pitch in, too. So do their grandkids, Lexi, Brayden and Diannah.
While Jimmy usually operates the picker, the family laughs remembering Brad’s first attempt. It was dead night, and Jimmy gave him three rules: Don’t back out of a row; press buttons from right to left to start and reverse the order to halt; and keep the picker centered on the plants.
Row one went off without a hitch; halfway through row two, the picker started shaking and rattling.
“I didn’t follow rule No. 3,” Brad said. “The plants were leaning to my left when I picked the first row but were leaning to my right when I started the second row. It was a rookie mistake I will never forget. For the record, rule No. 2 is easier to learn during daylight.”
The family is humble, but Katie is quick to heap praise on her husband of 50 years.
“Jimmy is the backbone of Ferguson Farms,” Katie said. “We love him and admire his dedication to our family and the farm.”