BY JANE BLOODWORTH ROWE
PUNGO — It was barely 7 a.m. on one recent humid, overcast morning, but already customers were in the orchard plucking the plump berries that were ripening at Pungo Blueberries Etc.
Farm owners Robert and Juanita Burns decided in late June to open their orchards to pick-your-own berries after announcing earlier this spring that their farm would be closed to the public this year, and customers were apparently celebrating the opening by flocking to the orchard.
On this day, some pickers were already waiting when she arrived at 6:30 a.m. said cashier Nancy White.
Juanita Burns also reported brisk sales on the June 30 opening, and the pickers were still arriving on that day at mid-day despite the sultry afternoon heat.
“We have a lot of happy people today,” Juanita Burns said.
Robert and Juanita Burns opened Pungo Blueberries in 1984, and since then they’d built a loyal customer base who had made blueberry picking a part of their summer. This year, they decided that the long, hot days at the pick-your-own market ware becoming too taxing, and, as The Independent News reported in the spring, they decided to only sell on the wholesale level.
Then, employee Jerry Moulton stepped up and offered to help manage the pick-your-own business.
A Pungo resident, Moulton has been working at Pungo Blueberries for four years, and he was already no stranger to farm work when he began.
“I grew up on a farm on West Landing Road,” Moulton said. He left the farm to pursue other jobs, but he apparently liked the work well enough to return to it in his retirement, and he now works at Pungo Blueberries throughout the year. During the winter, he helps to prune and do other chores, and now he oversees the pick-your-own operation.
“I do a little bit of everything,” said Moulton. He, like White, said that his favorite part of the job was getting to know the customers over the years, and, in particular, watching the children grow up.
If the customers are the best thing, what’s the most challenging? It’s the heat, Moulton said. Blueberries ripen during the hottest time of the summer, and employees and pickers just deal with it.
Pickers include people of all ages, and they all have different needs and different picking styles. Some families bring their small children, who carry sand buckets and pick a small amount to eat as snacks. Other, more serious pickers tie baskets or buckets around their waists or necks so that both hands will be free for picking, and some pick several buckets and load them onto toy wagons to pull out of the orchard.
These pickers are more likely to be picking for freezing or jam making, and one such customer is George Wells, who has picked at Pungo Blueberries since it opened. He picks several pounds three times a week with a bucket hanging around his neck.
“It’s faster this way,” said Wells, who already had several loaded buckets on his wagon by 7:30 a.m. He and family members like to eat them for snacks and can sometimes eat a couple of pounds in one sitting, but he also freezes about 70 pounds a year or makes sauces for pancakes and waffles.
“I was heartbroken when I learned that they were closing,” Wells said.
“Some of the first customers who came on opening day said ‘thank you,’” White said.
Robert and Juanita Burns raise rabbiteye blueberries, a Southern variety that ripens during July and August. In past years, they’ve also grown blackberries and flowers, but blueberries are the only available crop. Juanita Burns’ cookbooks, Red, White and Blueberry and Red, White and Blueberry Second Time Around are also available.
Pungo Blueberries at 3477 Muddy Creek Road is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Call (757) 721-7434 for information. Blueberries are also available at local markets, including BayBreeze Farms and B&L Farm Market.
© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC