Steve and Evelyn Lucas, Washington, laugh now when they think back to the punishment they handed out years ago to their teenage daughter after she received a ticket for parking on the wrong side of a street.
They thought they were being really tough when they ordered her to pick all the blackberries from three rows of overgrown shrubs on their property and take them to sell at the farmers market, which was then located behind the Washington swimming pool.
Steve told her not to come home until every berry was sold, Evelyn recalled, noting they thought that would make for a long day.
So when she pulled back into the driveway at 9:30 a.m., Evelyn quickly tried to shoo her back out before Steve could see her, thinking she was being insubordinate.
But the joke was on them. She’d already sold out.
“That’s when the light bulb went off,” said Evelyn.
From that point on, the family sold blackberries grown on their property at the Washington Farmers’ Market most summers.
Eventually they began growing blueberries too, and about six years ago they opened the farm as a You-Pick business, inviting customers who wanted the full experience to pick for themselves, while still selling prepicked berries at the market.
Today Hunter’s Ridge Berry Farm, named for the family dog, has some 2,000 Chandler blueberry bushes and three acres of Triple Crown blackberries, as well as a patch of elderberry that is grown mainly as a way to keep the bees around once they’re finished pollinating the blueberries and blackberries.
Berry Picking Has Begun
Although opening day for blueberry picking is usually around Father’s Day, the farm opened to pickers this week with rules in place to make sure people are social distancing.
Only three customers/families can pick per hour, and children must stay in the same row as their parents.
Each customer is given a new flat to put their berries into and then take home. No one else touches the berries once they are picked, and the scale is wiped down in between customers, Evelyn said.
To schedule a time to pick blueberries, contact the farm at 314-808-6386 or visit the Facebook page.
Most You-Pick customers don’t stay longer than an hour, Evelyn said. She is quick to point out that “everything is trellised.
“You won’t be full of chiggers when you come to pick. There is no brush at the bottom of the canes, and you are not standing in tall grass to pick. It’s very clean.”
Located at 3757 Sunny Road, Hunter’s Ridge is a 15-minute drive from Downtown Washington. From Washington, take Highway 100 west and turn left on Highway KK. Follow KK to Sunny Road (just before you reach Highway 185) and turn left. Hunter’s Ridge Berry Farm is on the right. Watch for the sign.
Blueberries are expected to be available for six weeks, or until late July/early August.
The blackberries, which are expected to be ready for picking around July 5, also will be available for six weeks, or mid- to late-August.
Evelyn recommends people watch the Facebook page or call for updates.
The Lucases began their business with blackberries, initially picking from three rows of canes that had been on the property when they purchased it.
Since moving to their new location 13 years ago, the couple has planted three acres of the Triple Crown variety, so named because it produces early, big and juicy berries, Steve said.
But the success with blackberries only made Steve hungry to try planting blueberries as well. Having grown up in Oregon, where blueberries grow easily, he was familiar with the process. He had worked on a farm every summer as a child picking blueberries, strawberries, beans and much more.
Yet growing blueberries in Missouri is not easy, the Lucases said, even though there are a number of farms in the area that do it.
“We had to keep at it with trial and error to get things right,” Evelyn said, explaining the challenge is lowering the pH level.
“Our limestone table brings our water pH to 7.2. We need it to be 4.5,” she said.
The Lucases have a system of hydrants and drip hoses set up to irrigate and fertilize the plants and bushes using a process called fertigation, or the injection of fertilizers, used for soil amendments, water amendments and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system.
If you’ve never eaten a freshly picked blueberry before, the flavor is sure to surprise you.
“It’s intense,” Steve said, noting “the flavor doesn’t even begin to compare” with berries bought in a grocery store that are likely around seven days old by the time they are put out for sale.
“Most of our customers who are buying in volume are freezing the berries, and that’s perfect, because a berry will be as good out of the freezer as it went in,” Evelyn said.
They recommend customers who aren’t planning to freeze the berries only buy what they plan to eat within a day or two. They can be refrigerated to extend the life of the berry, of course, but the flavor does begin to deteriorate a little after several days, Evelyn said.
“They are really at their best right when you pick them.”
The cost of fresh berries is much better than you’ll find in most grocery stores too. Hunter’s Ridge sells blueberries for $3.50 a pound and blackberries for $3 a pound.
Although Hunter’s Ridge is open for You-Pick customers, most of its clientele prefer prepicked berries, which can be purchased either at the farm or the Washington Farmers’ Market (317 W. Main St. across from St. Francis Borgia Church in Downtown Washington) on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“That’s where the kids come in to work,” Evelyn said, referring to a team of teenagers who are hired to pick berries and help tend to the plants and bushes.
“We pick, pack and sell same day. Within 24 hours every berry that we pick gets sold,” she said.
You-Pick customers drive from as far away as Festus, Wentzville, Clayton and Ladue to pick berries at Hunter’s Ridge, Evelyn said.
The farm does sell a portion of its berries to some grocery stores, as well as Community Supported Agriculture groups.
Hires Local Teens
Since the Lucases got into the berry selling business as a way to put their own teenage daughter to work, it makes sense that they look to hire local teens each summer.
The grow the berries mainly because they enjoy the work, and they sell them not to make a profit, but to give local teenagers a way to learn some life skills and make a little money at the same time.
“And it gives young people the opportunity to see where their food supply originates and how important it is to nurture and monitor crops,” Evelyn said. “They also get exposure to marketing and business as the customers start to show up and ask them questions about the berries.”
The Lucases started by hiring local kids who lived close to them, many of whom were farm kids themselves. “They knew how to use and work the equipment,” Evelyn said. “Then some would bring a friend with them to work, and many of them didn’t know how to use the equipment, but we got such joy from teaching them, that we liked it.”
Today new hires are usually limited to berry picking their first summer, and Evelyn said it’s clear after the first day if a teen likes the work enough to come back.
Many return summer after summer until they go off to college. Some have gone on to study ag science. One just recently completed her master’s degree in education.
“They work to meet personal goals, such as saving to buy their first cell phone, first laptop, books for college, car insurance. They each have personal incentives for showing up and working hard,” Evelyn said.
And the Lucases are grateful. The teens are a critical piece of the berry farm’s success. “We couldn’t do this without them,” Evelyn said.
When the workday is finished, usually around 10 or 11 a.m., the teens will sometimes get their fishing poles and head down to the Lucases’ lake or even bring a kayak to take out on the water.
The Lucases say they welcome the teens to feel at home on their property.
“We work hard and then we play hard,” Evelyn said with a smile.
There is one other critical worker at Hunter’s Ridge, Simon Alvarez. He has a full-time job elsewhere, but he comes to the farm on his days off to manage the blackberry canes.
“He has worked here for 11 years, and he’s just part of the family now,” Evelyn said.
In addition to berries, Hunter’s Ridge sells a variety of breads, jams and jellies using berries grown on the farm, as well as honey from the bee hives on the property.
“This is the new No. 1 seller — hot honey,” said Evelyn. “Hot as in spicy hot. When you get a spoonful of this . . . whoa!”
The bread flavors include a yeast bread with honey, lemon blueberry, chocolate zucchini and blueberry banana bread with a coconut topping.
They are available at the Washington Farmers’ Market each Saturday.
New this year are faux flower arrangements, most featuring faux blueberries, that Evelyn has started making.
Competitors, but Feels Like a Team
Hunter’s Ridge Berry Farm is one of several berry farms around Franklin County. There’s also Thierbach Orchards and Berry Farm in Marthasville, Legacy Produce on Old Highway 100, Huckleberry Hollow Blueberry Farm in St. Clair and Babb Blueberry Farm on Highway 50 in Beaufort, to name a few.
The Lucases said each of the farms refer callers and customers to each other, especially since many grow different varieties, which ripen at different times.
“We are really competitors, but it feels like a team,” Evelyn said.
And if you’re wondering about the Lucases’ daughter who sparked the idea for the berry farm all those years ago, she’s gone on to become an extremely competent dental hygienist, passing her boards with a perfect score, Evelyn said, proudly.