Joe's Blues takes blueberry farming to the next level

Michigan is the number one state in highbush blueberry production with growers producing over 100 million pounds of blueberries every year. For the small farmer it takes a lot of good ideas to be competitive. Joe Corrado and his father, Frank, have a lot of good ideas. 
Joe and Frank Corrado don't have a long history of family farming, but the son and father team behind Joe's Blues do have an affinity for getting their hands in the dirt.

Joe Corrado bought Moss Funnel Farm in 2008 and since then he and his father have been exploring all kinds of ways to make money farming the property in Bangor.  

It's not easy but it's working. Frank reports business is up 25 percent from a year ago for the farm that started out raising blueberries and has moved into other areas. Today they offer a CSA (community supported agriculture) to more than 100 customers with 11 pickup points across Chicagoland.

They travel to various farmers markets across the region. And they are building their frozen blueberry line as they work to make the farm a year-round operation. A number of their moves have an marketing flair that not all farmers employ. Blueberry bushes for rent was one of their first.

It was one of those 3 a.m. brainstorms, Frank says. "It popped into our heads." It turns out the idea is not unique. An apple farmer in Eau Claire rents out trees on his farm, Tre Mendous Fruit, "but we didn't know that," Frank says.

Regardless, people like having a blueberry bush with their name on it. Even more important, the 60-year-old  high bush Jersey blueberries that grow to seven or eight feet tall on the property produced berries that are sweeter than most. Renters receive a certificate numbered to correspond to a specific bush at the farm. They pay $35 and are guaranteed up to 12 pounds of yield, which they can pick at anytime as the berries ripen.

This year for the first time, the farm tried U-pick blueberries at twilight. The idea for playing music as people pick blueberries grew out of Joe's other life as a musician  in Los Angeles. Twilight picking happened each Saturday in August from 6 to 9 p.m. Berry pickers discovered Joe's Blues applies to more that berry bushes as Joe and a friend who helps on the farm picked guitars as customers picked their way through the field. The first week it was a success and the second week could have used a little more publicity, Frank says. "Next year we'll do more promotion."

Another first for the farm this year has been blue veggies: Blue potatoes, Purple Islander Peppers, Cherokee Tomatoes, Sweet Scottish Blue Kale, and blue popcorn kept the Joe's Blues theme running throughout the growing season. They sold them them Joe’s Paradise Blue Vegetables.

The Corrados also are working to get Joe's Blues frozen blueberries into more retail outlets. Frank says the sweetness of their berries led them to market the frozen berries as an antidote to "blah berries," a reference to the lack of flavor in most frozen blueberries.

All of these different tactics are designed to keep the business growing. One of the factors that makes Moss Funnel Farm a challenge is its size. The property is just over 5 acres and it's competing with huge blueberry farms across the region that provides a third of the nation's blue berries.

To even the playing field, Joe and his father are developing partnerships with blueberry farmers across the area. So far they have partnered with six other farms. One of the largest is a familiar name to berry lovers who drive M-43. They are now partners with Amy Clark and Jody Lemmer,  granddaughters of Frank Kovach.

They also are working with other farmers, doing research to demonstrate that small blueberry farms can be converted to offer naturally grown berries. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers are applied. Instead rich composted soil is used. It's not only good for the bushes, it also repels pests.

They received a $24,000 grant from the USDA to explore whether other small blueberry farmers can produce naturally grown berries as the Corrados do. "We want to help the small farmers who are struggling," Frank says.

They have found a demand for naturally grown berries and it has become a selling point for Joe's Blues.

Joe Corrado has been adamant about raising only naturally grown berries since he bought the farm. Franks says Joe told him that he intended to have children and he did not want them being raised around chemicals that typically come with farming.

The Corrados are going beyond naturally grown and are seeking certification as an organic farm, a move that comes with a great many requirements. Frank says his background is in dealing with bureaucracy, so he is not intimidated by what might lay ahead. "We'll see."

Joe and Frank have divided the labor needed to keep the farm running.  At 72, Frank says he is still full of energy and finds farming to be an amazingly vibrant job. "There's the mental part and the the next day you're out driving the tractor.

"It's a very fulfilling thing to do."
Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.