Blueberry Hill - Sibling rivalry leads to business venture

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Keith Ashline, Littleport, stands amidst more than 700 blueberry bushes he’s planted since 2012. Each bush yields about five pounds of fruit.

Ashline’s blueberries are still green and hard but lush, ripened fruit will be available for picking in early July. Ashline is one of the state’s few blueberry farmers.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor

You’re never too old to engage in some good-natured sibling rivalry. Just ask Keith Ashline. 

Five years ago, the Littleport man started growing blueberries to compete with his brother who grows grapes in Wisconsin. At the time, he knew little about the fruit but now he has a thriving pick-your-own business, one of the few in Iowa that specializes only in blueberries.

“I’m not sure I started out thinking about blueberries but I got online and learned that this ground is good for them,” Ashline said. “So I bought around 400 bushes from a farm in New Jersey. I lost about half of them the first year. But I’ve learned a lot since them.”

Currently, Ashline and his wife, Sandy, have around 700 bushes, which cover about a half-acre of their spacious backyard. The bushes are arranged in neat rows and each row has its own irrigation system. That’s something Ashline added after realizing that the water he collected from his eaves wouldn’t be sufficient.

“I had a barrel that held 250 gallons, which I thought would be enough,” he said. “Boy, was I wrong.”

The irrigation tubes are filled from a large container that, in turn, gets water from a well. The pumps associated with the well and watering system are solar powered.

No chemicals or pesticides are used on the bushes. Landowners who share his belief in growing as organically as possible surround Ashline. Therefore, his berries don’t get “chemical drift” from others’ gardening efforts. 

Established bushes are winter hardy. They bloom in early spring, usually before apples trees start to blossom. Hard green fruit soon replaces the flowers, which is the current state of Ashline’s crop. The bushes will be weighed down with fully ripened blueberries by the first part of July. Ashline’s favorite variety produces nickel-sized fruit. In a good year, each bush could yield as much as five or six pounds of berries.

Much of what Ashline knows about growing blueberries comes from hands-on learning.

“People will ask me ‘How do you know what to do’ and I tell them it’s all trial and error. It’s learning by doing,” Ashline admits. “And it’s also a lot of work—more work than I expected. But it’s become my passion so I keep at it.”

In addition to wind and weather, the Ashlines battle beasts and birds, who like the berries almost as much as people like them. Deer are a constant problem as are robins, cedar waxwings and blue jays. Ashline is planning a “net party” to stretch netting from one end of his patch to the other. He hopes the net will stop winged visitors.

The Ashlines prefer eating their berries fresh or sometimes in a pie. The varieties they grow can be frozen, as well.

And as far as the results of that sibling rivalry go, it’s like comparing, well, blueberries and grapes. Ashline notes with pride that his brother has earned several honors for the wine he makes from the grapes he grows. But the Iowa Ashline is no slouch, either. His berries have become popular with neighbors, friends and others who take advantage of his decision to share.

For picking dates and times, contact the Ashlines (563-245-1575) after July 4.

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