Yep, Blueberries for Sal and the Rest of Us
Hearing Cheri Ward erupt in laughter catches me by surprise. She’s been soft-spoken and all business up ’til now, describing how she and husband Robert Sollott were “starryeyed” when they first looked at property for sale in McClellanville. How falling for this idyllic spot resulted in a late-life transformation from timber framer and woodworker to blueberry farmers. How they go to bed happy and exhausted at night from the nonstop chores of working the land. And how they love welcoming guests to Blue Pearl Farms for their annual Blueberry Festival, now seven years running, which draws 1,500-plus people for live music, plenty of food and bushels of blueberry love.
She’s ticking through the festival’s list of activities and its headliner competition (more on that later), as well as the impressive line-up of food vendors who will participate this year, including some of Charleston’s best chefs, and it strikes me that this is a ton of work on top of their already labor intensive day job(s). When I ask if she hires an event planner to assist with what sounds like a gargantuan undertaking, Ward lets loose her laughter. Earthy, warm, uproarious laughter. Berry-fueled belly laughs.
“Ha, ha, oh gosh no, the thought never even occurred to me,” she says between guffaws. “No, it’s just an old-school music festival; Robert and I work together to pull it off—no event planner—I can’t even imagine it,” and her chuckles eventually fade away.
What she and Sollott, who met in 2010 and married soon after, have imagined though, and realized through their own determination, dreams and sweat equity (and no event planners), is a place of down-to-earth magic. A place where they’ve dug in, learned by trial and error and planted a good bit of varied life experience to cultivate meaningful work and damn good blueberries.
This summer marks their seventh growing season at Blue Pearl Farms, which was already established as a blueberry farm when they bought it in 2011 from Roscoe Carter. “Roscoe’s brother had been a blueberry farmer in Eastern North Carolina, so he’d come back from visiting with lots of knowledge about how to grow blueberries,” says Ward. The farm, which borders the Francis Marion National Forest, had been used to grow cotton after the Civil War, and its sandy, aridness seems to be the perfect grit for producing blue pearls.
“The wonderful thing about the variety we grow, called rabbiteyes, is that they’re long-term natives. They’ve been cultivated in the Lowcountry for more than a century, and they’re incredibly sturdy bushes that love poor-quality, acidic, sandy soil, which is what we have here,” she explains. Ward and Sollott have added about 300 plants to the farm, expanding and replacing older ones as needed, and now are up to about 3,000 bushes. The trick to growing robust blueberries is pruning them regularly and with care.
“They spread by vegetative propagation—shooting out a root that pops up and grows a new cane,” Ward explains. “You can end up with one plant that grows out to about 24 miles, but you don’t want that,” she adds. The fruit grows only on the part that gets sun, so pruning controls height for best sun exposure and, importantly, “to manage the harvesting,” she adds. At Blue Pearl Farms, every berry is plucked by hand. No mechanical pickers, no teams of labors who swoop in. “That’s how it’s done for production farming, but that’s not us,” Ward explains.
In other words, she and Sollott aren’t aiming to produce large quantities, but impeccable quality. Their berries ripen over staggered eight-week periods, so they’re harvesting delicious blueberries throughout the season, which is good news for Sugar Bakeshop, which showcases sugar-dusted blue pearls on top of their lemon-blueberry cupcakes, among other edible works of art.
To ensure that Sugar and their other Charleston restaurant customers, including Edmund’s Oast, get perky flavor-bursting berries with no harmful chemicals, Ward and Sollott use only seaweed and organic mulch and fertilizer.
“We try to always give people a little more than they expect in terms of flavor and quality,” she says. “My favorite thing is to invite someone to sample a berry and then watching their eyes pop wide with amazement.”
In addition to fresh blueberries and their best-selling blueberry compote and blueberry chipotle barbeque sauce, Ward and Sollott have expanded the farm’s product list in alliterative style, adding bees and blue crabs to Blue Pearl’s purview. “We farm four acres on our property, but I like to say our bees farm an additional 2,500 acres in the Francis Marion (National Forest) right behind us. The bees love it,” says Ward, noting that the forest provides a rich and varied foraging diet—the secret to good honey—for their 100 bee colonies.
“The bees make their own mixture, they’re the architects of the flavor, but ours always tastes a bit like blueberry nectar,” adds Ward, who, though she’s never before supported herself as a farmer, has a background in botany and 15 years of beekeeping experience. The blueberry-hinted honey, as well as Blue Pearl blueberries, will star in a seasonal tribute to Ward by the gourmet ice cream sandwich creators at Wich Cream, called “Blueberry Cheri.” Cue this summer’s most delicious finger-lick.
Blue Pearl Farms’ raw wildflower honey, hand-poured pure beeswax candles, Buzz Cream, Buzz Spray and Lip Buzz are some of the apian goods available at Blue Pearl Farms, and on their website or at their farmers’ market booths. And to make it as easy as possible for people to find their goods, Ward and Sollott have been building a roadside stand.
“We really enjoy people coming to the farm, and sharing this place with them. Having our own farm stand will be another way, in addition to the events and weddings we host, to introduce others to Blue Pearl Farms.”
But by far the biggest buzz, event-wise, is Blue Pearl Farms’ annual Blueberry Festival in June. “If you want to have a good time, without a lot of fancy trappings, this is the place for you,” says Ward. But she and Sollott do know good Americana and bluegrass music, and they make sure there’s plenty of it at the festival. Plus a Chefs’ Row featuring plenty of “interesting food combinations and flavors that people who may not always make it to downtown Charleston deserve a chance to try.” This year’s offerings will include flavors and foods from Short Grain food truck, chefs from Indaco and Prohibition, plus Amy Robinette, a.k.a. the cake farmer. “She’ll be making and baking everything blueberry,” says Ward. “There’s a huge range, sweet and savory, something for everyone, including wine and beer pairings.”
And about that competition mentioned earlier…Blue Pearl Farms is none other than the destination for would-be Blueberry Toss World Record holders, or those hoping to tie and/or break the current record, set at Blue Pearl Farms, of 55 feet eight inches. To be clear: that’s one person tossing one blueberry, and another person catching it—in his or her mouth. “We make up the rules, and we hold the world record,” Ward says. ‘The audience is the judge.” Indeed, Ward and Sollott are making a living, and a life by making their own rules. Rules and extremely high standards about quality, about farming in ways that honor the land and about sharing their farm with others.
“This is a lot of work…a lot of work,” Ward confesses. “Many nights we are very, very tired, but we’re lucky because there’s nobody telling us what to do. Our decisions are our decisions, and the mistakes are our mistakes, and we’re always looking for ways to move forward,” she adds. “Both Robert and I grew up being outside all the time. We want to create a space where people feel comfortable and safe doing that, where they can sit on the ground and enjoy music and blueberry lemonade, and have a little room to breathe.”