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Blueberry Bounty

Great Southern Farms Picks a Winning Crop

Landscapes Summer 2015
Bucket of blueberries

Debra Ferguson/Southern Images


Stories abound about farmers who have found ways to overcome hardship when weather or markets deal them a blow. One such story involves Mississippi farmer Malcolm Edwards, who owns and operates Great Southern Farms, a bustling blueberry business near Richton, with his son, Jeremy.

Edwards family

The Edwards family, clockwise from bottom left: Tanner, Andrew, Jennifer, Jeremy, Leslie Sanford, Evia, Malcolm, Justin, Wendy and Audri Anna.

Courtesy of Mississippi Farm Country


After experiencing problems with his row crops in the 1980s, Malcolm got into blueberries in 1990, starting small and gradually increasing his acreage over the years. Today, the operation can boast success, growing 1 million pounds of blueberries that are marketed all over North America.

At the heart of the farm’s success is the enthusiasm and hard work of the Edwards family.

Nearly every family member pitches in, all the while having a good time together. For example, Jeremy’s wife, Jennifer, works in the office. Malcolm’s younger son, Justin, recently joined in the family farm, and Justin’s wife, Wendy, works in the packing house monitoring quality control and scheduling employees.

In addition to growing and packing their own crop, Great Southern Farms packs 500,000 to 750,000 pounds of blueberries grown by other farmers.

Growing a Blueberry Business

Malcolm was overjoyed when, in 2004, Jeremy joined him and his wife, Evia, on the farm. In 2008 they built their own packing facility, and continually added acreage over the next several years. By 2014 they achieved their current 130 acres of blueberries — and the rest, well, is history.

In addition to growing and packing their own crop, Great Southern Farms packs 500,000 to 750,000 pounds of blueberries grown by other farmers. For the past several years, the farm has supplied fresh berries to Kroger, Winn-Dixie and Walmart. This year, Malcolm proudly reports that Winn-Dixie is going to interview Jeremy and do in-store promotional events featuring the farm. Their fresh berries are sold as far away as New York and Chicago. Their frozen berries go mostly to the West Coast, but are also in demand on the East Coast and in Canada.

Handful of blueberries

A born innovator, Malcolm keeps coming up with fresh ideas for the operation. Early on, he recognized the growing interest in blueberries as a superfood, and increased his acreage accordingly.

“The family tried to put me out to pasture,” he says, chuckling. “But I need to keep busy. I really want to grow our blueberry business. With increased blueberry acreage all over the U.S., even though we are a large grower by Mississippi standards, we are small compared to nationwide.”

But Malcolm is also quick to say that he always runs ideas by his firstborn son
and partner.

"We strive to ensure that the customer gets the very best. Blueberries are not cheap, and we want people who pay for them to get a good product.”

- Malcom Edwards

“Jeremy and I, as partners and family members, balance each other out well,” says Malcolm. “I’m the kind of person who wants to jump into the deep end, while Jeremy is more cautious, and says, ‘Wait, let’s test the waters first.’”

 

Patience, Pesky Birds and Frost

blueberries on branch

Berries ripening on the bush

Photo by Debra Ferguson/Southern Images


Growing blueberries is not without its hardships. In the beginning, patience is the virtue of the day — although relatively easy to grow, blueberry bushes are not fully mature until they are 6 years old, a long wait for the farmer to see his investment bear fruit.

Harvest typically begins in late April with varieties of Southern Highbush, followed by Rabbiteye, which is harvested from late May through mid-July. According to Malcolm, Southern Highbush berries are more difficult to grow than the later Rabbiteye, although they can be rewarding due to early market pricing.

One major problem is the cedar waxwings, migratory birds that pass through Richton in late April to early May and stop at the farm to feast on the ripening berries.

“We have to set up gas cannons to scare off the birds,” Malcolm explains. “We often use a loud-speaker device that emits recordings of waxwings in distress. We also spray the berries with grape extract like that used in grape-flavored products, which the birds do not like.”

Frost can be a big problem too. To combat this, they use eight large wind machines with huge helicopter-like blades to draw down the warmer air that resides in the frost’s inversion layer and blow it onto the plants, enabling them to raise the temperature at least a crucial three to four degrees.

The Packing House and the Office

Inside the packing house is state-of-the art machinery for sorting and packing. Berries are dumped at the beginning of the packing line and conveyed to a wind blower, which blows out light blueberries, and leaves and other foreign matter. Next, the blueberries go through the color sorter and soft sorter, to remove immature and soft fruit.

Jeremy Edwards holds packaged blueberries

Jeremy Edwards inside the packing house.


Latino workers weighing blueberries

During picking season, the farm has about 50 workers in the field and up to 45 people working in the packing house.

Debra Ferguson/Southern Images


Finally, human workers on the “fresh line,” as Malcolm calls it, carefully inspect the berries, removing green or damaged fruit, leaving only the best. Once the blueberries have been inspected, they continue to the hopper/filler, where they are automatically measured into containers.

“We strive to ensure that the customer gets the very best,” says Malcolm. “Blueberries are not cheap, and we want people who pay for them to get a good product.”

Meanwhile, in the office, Jennifer is hard at work doing the business housekeeping, which includes using social media. Friendly in person, she has an equally engaging voice on Facebook, where she lets customers know when produce is available, promotes blueberry health benefits and posts recipes — including one for an intriguing blueberry soup (see sidebar).

Six Years and Counting With Southern AgCredit

Sometimes serendipity plays a role in finding financing.

Through his service with a county soil and water conservation district, Southern AgCredit’s Gary Blair happened to become acquainted with some Edwards family relatives — and when the family was seeking financing for recreational timberland property, the relatives referred them to Blair.

“Gary Blair is a super guy,” reports Jeremy, “and always ready
to help.”

“They made the loan process easy for us,” Malcolm adds. “And we were well-pleased with the good interest rate.”

Blair, vice president and branch/relationship manager in the co-op’s Brookhaven office, acknowledges that it has been a great relationship for the past six years.

“This is a true family operation where they all work really hard, and are very busy, being as diversified as they are,” he says.

It helps that they all seem to have boundless energy. In addition to managing Great Southern Farms, Malcolm, Jeremy and Justin own a pavement specialty business that contracts with departments of transportation in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. Malcolm also owns four poultry broiler houses and raises beef cattle. His daughter, Robin, and her husband, Dustin, help manage the poultry and cattle operations.

Loving Blueberries, Enjoying Family

The Edwards family just might be the biggest fans of their blueberries, and their favorite recipes for the fruit might
surprise you.

Malcolm, who freely admits that he enjoys ice cream every evening, likes to top the dessert with frozen blueberries and sugared strawberries.

“My family’s favorite recipe is to pick them right off the bush,” Jeremy says, laughing.

Jennifer chimes in: “Yes, at our house, we usually eat them all before they make it into any recipe!”

Finally, the recipe for a happy family can be summed up in a few simple words from Malcolm.

“It’s a family farm,” he says. “We enjoy working together and keeping God first in our lives.”

- Staff

For recipes, health benefits and more information from Jennifer Edwards, visit www.facebook.com/greatsouthernfarms.

Chilled Blueberry Soup

blueberry juice

Photo by Kanokwalee Pusitanun

This blueberry-packed treat is refreshing, creamy and not too sweet.

  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 pint half-and-half
  • Garnish: mint sprigs

Bring first five ingredients to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring often. Remove from heat, and slightly cool.

Process blueberry mixture and lemon juice in a blender or food processor until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Stir in half-and-half just before serving. Garnish, if desired.

Note: For a creamier soup, add a dollop of plain yogurt to each serving.


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