Travel to Michigan’s Blueberry Coast to pick farms | Wender Mind Kids

Travel to Michigan's Blueberry Coast to pick farms

Blueberries needed a champion, and Tiffany Balk was more than up to the task.

Fifteen years ago, Balk wanted to send a gift to a friend in Chicago from her home in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Her husband suggested a box of dried cherries, the Traverse City area’s signature crop.

But Grand Haven is about 150 miles south of Traverse City, west of Grand Rapids, on the east shore of Lake Michigan. Completely different area, completely different mood, Balk said to her husband.

“Blueberries are to southwest Michigan like cherries are to northern Michigan,” she said. As soon as she heard herself, Balk realized she had struck a niche business.

Blueberries are indeed the small, round, cute, colorful crop that defines midsummer along the rolling dunes and broad beaches of Lake Michigan’s east shore. Like dried cherries, cranberries, and raisins, dried blueberries add flavor to cookies, cakes, and salads. Blueberries freeze beautifully, meaning the harvest can provide mix-ins for bread and muffins year-round.

So Balk got down to business. It was a specialty business just waiting to be established.

Blueberry season typically blooms around July 4th and lasts through late August, with various cultivars rolling into Michigan’s farm stands along Interstate Highway 196, which hugs the lake from Indiana to Grand Haven.

Pick-your-own farms offer a taste of the back-breaking work of hand-raking blueberries. Every Michigan farmer’s market is littered with baskets, buckets, and crates of blueberries. Alongside National Blueberry Month in July, South Haven’s National Blueberry Festival (blueberryfestival.com), slated for August 11-14 this year, is another great opportunity to get involved with kids pie-eating contests, a parade and a Pamper Cake Social.

Blueberries love light, sandy soil, making the beaches and bluffs of southwest Michigan the perfect environment for growing the 110 million pounds of berries the state produced in 2020. That makes Michigan the top national producer of cultivated blueberries, according to the US Department of Agriculture, followed by Washington, Oregon and Georgia.

Maine leads in wild or lowbush berries, producing 102 million pounds in 2020.

Balk, 56, is now part of the Blueberry industrial complex. Her business, Blueberry Haven (213 Washington Ave., Grand Haven; 616-935-7562; blueberry-haven.com) created a nucleus for an industry that didn’t realize it needed one. Based out of downtown Grand Haven, she stocks and sells (onsite and online) blueberry bake mixes, salsa, honey, all manner of jams and pie ingredients, and of course, a variety of chocolate-covered dried blueberries. Everything she offers is made in Michigan, most right in or around Grand Haven.

Raised in northern Maine, her childhood was straight out of Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book, “Blueberries for Sal,” in which a preschool blueberry thief and her bear equivalent “get mixed up on Blueberry Hill” while their respective mothers collect berries for the winter.

“We used to drive over to Machias and rake blueberries on my cousin’s farm,” she says, referring to a coastal town in Maine. “If you were poor in the summer, what did you do? You would go raking blueberries.”

College brought her to central Michigan, where she met and married her husband and started a family. She was introduced to retail by working in a local clothing store.

Finding a gift that didn’t exist showed her what to sell. “There wasn’t a blueberry brand,” Balk said. When her youngest child started kindergarten, she founded her business and began making and selling blueberry products at the local farmer’s market.

First came a pancake mix. Then came jam, then chocolate covered blueberries.

When a store in downtown Grand Haven became vacant in 2010, she and her husband went all out and bought it. The store opened in 2011.

It’s hard to avoid blueberries on Michigan’s west coast, but who would want that?

South of Grand Haven, Holland is dotted with blueberry options. Among the best: Blueberry donuts at Bowerman Blueberry’s two locations (You-pick and farm market, 15793 James St., Holland; Bowerman’s on 8th Cafe and Bakery, 2 E. 8th St., Holland; 616-738-3099 ; real blueberries .com) and S. Kamphuis (4140 148th Ave., Holland; 616-399-9545; skamphuisblueberries.com), where you can also buy frozen berries.

At Blueberry Haven, Balk finds no end to blueberry-everything from barbecue sauce to coffee. The bestseller? Chocolate-covered blueberries, but blueberry salsa comes a close second.

And just to make sure her Illinois customers feel valued, particularly alumni and University of Illinois fans, Balk added a pop of orange to her brand’s deep blue labels.

Blueberries were a staple for Native American tribes originally inhabiting what is now the Midwest. The 35 species of blueberries native to North America, found south to the Mexican border and north to eastern Canada and Alaska, were in Urbana, according to Ryan Pankau, a horticulturist at the University of Illinois Extension.

The discovery of their antioxidant properties has transformed blueberries from a dessert ingredient into a staple of healthy eating. According to the Mayo Clinic, it only takes ½ cup — 30 calories — of fresh blueberries to provide 25% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C and three grams of fiber.

About half of the 690 million pounds of blueberries produced in 2020 was sold fresh, with the rest being processed, according to the USDA.

Find Blueberry updates and events through the Grand Haven Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (visitgrandhaven.com).

Grab a rake and scour the branches for berries on the farm to pick. Such farms for blueberries and all kinds of produce can be found at pickyourown.org.

Or, pick up your berries at a Michigan farmers market (michigan.org/farmers-markets) and pick one that’s right for your trip.

Joanne Cleaver is a freelance writer.