July/Aug. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Matt Salvo, Barbara Arciero and Brian Feulner
Woman turns childhood dream into family business
Blueberry farmer Liz Giusto, her daughter Mary Rose and a vintage pickup truck welcome visitors to the family’s U-pick farm in San Joaquin County.
Liz Giusto's feelings about blueberries border on the romantic.
The San Joaquin County farmer remembers first becoming enchanted with the fruit as a child reading about scrumptious blueberry muffins and pancakes in her favorite storybooks.
Fascinated with the deep-purple berries, Giusto said she and her mom went looking for them in the store, only to be disappointed.
"We'd ask if they had any, and they'd say, ‘Oh no, we don't have blueberries in California,'" said Giusto.
Little did she know that someday she would be running her own farm and growing millions of the tiny, sweet orbs that, back in the day, seemed as unobtainable and fantastical as magic pumpkins out of a fairy tale. But that's getting ahead of the story.
Giusto's relentless search for blueberries wasn't always unsuccessful. She said one year, she and her mom finally found some in the store's frozen-food section and were very excited about their purchase. But then came another crushing discovery: "They tasted terrible."
Having come from a farming family with a father who produced tomatoes for the local cannery, Giusto said she grew up wanting to grow her own blueberries. But when she asked area farmers about the prospect, they always told her that they had never heard of blueberries being grown in California.
That's because blueberries traditionally were grown in cool-climate regions with moist, acidic soils and were not suited for the Golden State's arid conditions. But with the introduction of new, heat-tolerant blueberry varieties in recent years, California blueberry production has become a reality.
When Giusto and her husband, Marc, bought their farm in Acampo in 1983, it was planted with a white winegrape variety that simply wasn't making the cut financially. By the late 1990s, she wanted to grow something else, but she wanted it to be a crop that her family—including daughter Mary Rose—would love to eat all the time.
One day she was driving by a farm in her area and she noticed what looked like a nursery of hedge plants.
Gary Stapleton of Acampo, center, helps his son Logan pick blueberries, while his daughter, Morgan, in photo below, fills her own bucket with the fruit.
"And I thought, ‘That's the oddest thing I ever saw,'" Giusto said. "I grew up in this valley, so I recognize just about every plant that's here. But this one was totally unfamiliar."
Several months later, still curious about the plants, she decided to stop to take a closer look. Much to her disbelief, the plants had berries on them.
"I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, these are blueberries,'" she said. "And they had been growing there for quite some time."
She did some research and learned that the beloved berries she had wanted so much to grow as a youngster were in fact being grown in California, and they were thriving. So in 2003, the Giustos pulled out their grapes and replaced them with 15 different varieties of blueberries, each with its own characteristics and flavor.
The berry varieties also ripen at different times, allowing the Giustos to stretch their growing season from May to October—and keep the farm open longer.
Giusto said turning her farm into a U-pick—where customers themselves harvest the fruit—happened naturally because family and friends loved coming to the farm to pick their own fruit. The business grew from there.
In addition to U-pick, Giusto said she knew she also wanted to sell her berries at the local farmers market in Lodi because she enjoys the social atmosphere there and contact with customers.
Lisa Loduca of Acampo said she's been going to the Giustos' U-pick farm for about five years and knows exactly what part of the field grows her favorite variety of blueberries, even though she doesn't know the name of them.
"Sometimes I would buy enough so I could freeze them because they're great all year-round, not just during blueberry season," she said.
For Gary Stapleton, who also lives in Acampo, visiting the farm is a way to get his family outdoors, all while supporting a local family farm.
"It's kind of like a family outing for us," he said. "I have three young kids and they love it. They probably eat more than they pick. They try to outdo each other and see who can get the most blueberries on their face. It's a lot of fun."
Giusto said many of her first-time customers are struck by how fragrant the blueberry plants are. Those who've never tasted the berries fresh-picked are often surprised by the distinct flavors of each variety. Some berries are sweeter than others. Some taste spicy, like cinnamon, while others provide a hint of peach flavor.
When the berries are fully ripe and at their best, they look plump, like miniature blue pumpkins, and fall off the plant with a gentle shake of the bush.
"If you have to tug and pull the berry off the plant, it wasn't ripe," Giusto said.
The farm charges $5 a pound for U-pick and $8 a pound for already-picked berries.
Giusto said consumer awareness that blueberries are high in antioxidants has definitely helped her business, as well as boost demand for the fruit worldwide. To further promote her customers' interest in blueberries, her farm for the past two years has been doubling as a nursery, selling the plants and offering workshops to people who want to grow their own blueberries.
"People are not aware that they can actually grow blueberries in this area, but we can grow a lot of different varieties," she said. "They're really wonderful for landscaping, especially for people who are into edible landscaping. They've got light-green foliage that brightens up the yard, and it's a nice contrast with flowers."
She said her goal now is to plant more blueberry varieties and continue offering her customers the unique experience that her U-pick farm brings.
"It seems like every year the longer we have our farm, the more we saw that people really loved picking their own fruit," she said. "We saw that this was another connection that we have with people. It's just really fun."
Mary Rose, Liz and Marc Giusto pose on the front porch of their farmhouse.
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.