Ripe for the Picking
In the heart of Greenbrier County sits White Oak Farm—a small, pick-your-own-berries farm.
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Kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk! These are the sounds of summer. At least, they are if you’re picking berries at White Oak Farm in Renick. Like the beloved storybook character Sal, from Robert McCloskey’s award-winning Blueberries for Sal, everyone knows there’s nothing more satisfying than taking home a pail full of summer berries—and nothing more tempting than shoving a handful into your mouth.
Fresh berries are Max and Anne Robinson’s forte. Owners and operators of White Oak Farm since they purchased the 15 acres of land in 1993, the Robinsons now have four teenagers who they homeschool and who help them care for the land, which includes four acres of blueberries featuring 17 varieties. “There are mild taste differences, but the biggest difference is when they ripen—some come in earlier, some come in later,” Max explains. “Some people come out and know the kind of berry they want, or they want to go to the same area they picked from last year.” All of the berries the Robinsons grow, including a small patch of red raspberries also open for picking, are meant for fresh eating. The blueberries freeze well, and while some are larger and easier to pick, some are smaller and sweeter. The blueberries are easy to get to, Anne says. “Blueberry bushes grow about as tall as people, so you don’t have to bend over to pick. The berries are mostly right within arms reach.” That makes picking berries something everyone can do, from children to senior citizens and older church groups. The Robinsons even offer chairs for anyone who might struggle with standing for hours. For a little extra spending money, the kids will sometimes fill orders—say, for two gallons of berries—for visitors who are unable to or don’t wish to pick.
The best time of day to pick, and the only time of day the farm is open, is in the mornings and evenings to beat the heat. The season typically runs from around the last week of June through the early days of August. Short as that may sound, berry growing is a year-round venture for the Robinson family. “June is the easy time when you get to sit in the shade and sell,” Max laughs. In the fall, Max and Anne lay sawdust mulch, which takes several weeks. Then, the couple spends four days a week all winter and through mid-March pruning the bushes. There is always mowing to be done to keep the grounds neat. Come spring, the family maintains the irrigation system. And finally, two weeks before the berries ripen, Max and Anne have to get the nets up. That’s right, they sew together nets to hang around the berries to keep "critters" out. “In the spring, we watch the weather,” says Max. “And we spend a lot of time praying for no frost.”
The praying has paid off. With nearly 20 years of farming under their belts, the Robinsons have managed a successful berry-picking farm for nearly 15 of those years. “We bought the land in January 1993. Before we even moved in, we did our first planting of blueberries,” Max says. “It was five years before we had any berries to sell, 10 years before we had any sort of crop.” But working the land is what Max and Anne love most. “Farming and gardening are part of how we met and fell in love with each other,” Max says. “We love to grow things.” Anne agrees, “There are lots of easier ways to have a business than farming, but there’s not necessarily a better way to live, and we were both drawn to that.”