Brittnee Connor rubbed her stomach and popped blueberries into her mouth as fast as she could pick them.
"Booberries are yummy, yummy, yummy," she said, pronouncing as well as any 5-year-old with a mouthful of fruit.
Her brother was of a like mind. Flashing a big blue smile, 4-year-old Logan added: "I like it when my mouth turns blue."
The Connor children and their mother, Marcie, traveled recently from Annapolis to Spring Valley Farm in Conowingo. They joined record crowds at pick-your-own farms in Harford and Cecil counties for the opening of blueberry season.
The peak of the season is July, which was declared National Blueberry Month in 2003 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Area farmers say the season typically starts slow in June and builds as more berries ripen. This year, however, peak season-size crowds descended on farms opening day.
"We're amazed at the number of people who showed up," said Elizabeth Derr, who along with her husband, Dan, owns Spring Valley. "Opening day usually brings in about 50 people, but this year we had more than 300 pickers."
It's the continuation of a years-long, national trend. Citing 2002 data, the North American Blueberry Council reports that the blueberry harvest has risen 65 percent since 1982, to 188.8 million pounds harvested from 46,000 acres in 35 states.
C. John Sullivan III, Harford County's agriculture director, said turnout in the county was indicative of the burgeoning business.
"I drove by a farm this morning at 7 a.m. and people were lined up to pick berries," Sullivan said last week. "The number of farms [in the region] that grow berries may be declining, but the number of people picking berries is definitely increasing."
Sullivan and others point to recent research showing the health benefits of blueberries as a key factor in the fruit's surging popularity.
The blueberry is high in antioxidants, which help neutralize harmful byproducts of metabolism called free radicals that can lead to cancer and age-related diseases, according to the USDA. Anthocyanin - the pigment that makes the berries blue - is believed to be responsible.
A study conducted for the USDA at Tufts University in Massachusetts ranked blueberries first in antioxidants over 40 other fruits and vegetables.
"People are looking for these types of foods for their daily diet," Sullivan said.
But there's also a more personal aspect that draws people not only to blueberries, but to other foods they can harvest themselves on farms, Sullivan says.
"They want to meet the farmers who produced the food they're eating," Sullivan said. "It's a slow-food movement as opposed to fast food. People want to know where their food came from and they want to know what they're eating."
For some people, berry-picking is about nostalgia.
As she watched her children pluck blueberries, Connor reminisced about farm outings as a child.
"When I was a girl, my parents took me out to pick strawberries and later raspberries," she said. "I hated picking strawberries - they made my hands scratchy and wet. The raspberries are softer and they get smashed easier. Blueberries are so much more fun. And, I don't have a big mess when I get home."
Joanne Richart-Young, agriculture coordinator for the Cecil County Office of Economic Development, said Cecil's farms also have seen an increase in business.
"It used to be that grandparents would bring their grandchildren to the farm to pick berries. It was a way of life," Richart-Young said. "Now people want the berries because they're healthy. So many people come out to the farms because they're time-sensitive and you can't get them fresh year around. So wherever you go, you see people waiting in line to get their blueberries."
Over the years, farmers have been hesitant about growing blueberries because of the initial investment of time and money required, as well as the short growing season, Sullivan said.
"There aren't a lot of blueberry farms because you have a large initial investment of at least $5,000 an acre and it takes about four years to see the first crop," he said. "It's a good cash crop, but it only lasts 60 days at best. The crops are typically small, no more than a half a dozen acres. If you have one frost, the crop is gone."
But as demand grows, so does the interest of farmers wanting to get into the market, Sullivan said.
Dan Derr of Spring Valley said he went into the blueberry business looking for diversity in his crops.
"I spent the first year preparing the soil," he said. "Blueberries like an acid soil so I had to add soil amendments. It took four years to see a crop. We started small with the pick-your-own blueberries and sold out in two hours. We immediately expanded."
Glen Shaw, who owns Shaw's Orchards in Stewartstown, Pa., and has orchards in Maryland, said preparing the soil played a big part in his initial reluctance to add blueberries to his crops.
But he has found more demand than he has berries and plans to expand if business continues to grow.
Shaw said blueberries are pleasurable and easier to pick than strawberries, which he also grows.
"You don't have to stand on your head to pick blueberries like you do with strawberries," Shaw said. "People enjoy picking blueberries. I already have enough people to pick the blueberries I have to offer."
Dan Derr, who has about 6 acres of blueberries, said he has had great success with his crop. He attributes his success in part to the health benefits of blueberries.
"In the 1970s when we first started, people did it [picked their own berries] to save money. Now they do it because blueberries contain antioxidants," he said. "People can't seem to get enough of them. We have people that come down two or three times a week for them."
For Connor, the appeal of blueberries is simpler.
"Some people get blueberries because they see them as miracle cures for cancer or whatever," she said. "Me, I just pick them because they taste good in pie and cobblers."
Health benefits of blueberries
In a USDA Human Nutrition Center lab, neuroscientists discovered that feeding blueberries to rats slowed age-related loss in mental capacity. Scientists believe this is because of the antioxidant content.
Blueberries may reduce the build up of so-called bad cholesterol that contributes to cardiovascular disease and stroke, according to scientists at the University of California at Davis. This, too, is attributed to antioxidants.
Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey have identified a compound in blueberries that promotes urinary tract health and reduces the risk of infection. It appears to work by preventing bacteria from adhering to cells that line the walls of the urinary tract.
Several studies in Europe have documented the relationship between the bilberry, the European cousin of the blueberry, and improved eyesight. This is thought to occur because of the anthocyanin in the blue pigment, which is also present in the blueberry. One study in Japan documented that blueberries helped ease eye fatigue.
- Compiled by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council
Pick-your-own blueberry farms
21901 Barrens Road South
Stewartstown, Pa. 17363
Note: Shaw has some orchards in Harford
Spring Valley Farm
724 Conowingo Road
www.springvalleyfarm.com- Other farms in the county offer picked blueberries.