Dan Lewis has got the blues
Dan Lewises arrival to Pocahontas County was an evolution of sharply contrasting career moves from career Air Force officer, to hospital administrator, to farmer.
"We had been hunting and fishing in West Virginia for a long time," explained Lewis. "We were living in Baltimore, working at Johns Hopkins and we bought a lot across from the golf course up at Snowshoe - we were gonna build a retirement home up there."
Lewis said when he and his wife Trudy reviewed the estimates for building a cabin, they were too high. So they started looking at land elsewhere in Pocahontas County. The Lewis's search brought them to the old Barlow farm in Edray and it didn't take long to decide what to do with their new land.
"I did a soil test," Lewis said, "When I got it back, it was pretty acidic. We happened to be driving down by Renick one day and I saw that blueberry farm there and I went in and talked to Max [Robinson]. So I knew it was possible."
Lewis went ahead and started researching the new venture, and the Katahdin Farm was born.
"We toured probably fifteen blueberry farms up in Michigan one summer to see how they were doing this," he said. "I took the ideas I liked and brought them here."
According to Lewis, running a blueberry farm isn't easy. He started small and expanded every year.
"It's got a pretty steep learning curve and there's all kinds of things that want to take you out before you get started," Lewis said. "The deer, raccoons, coyotes, bears, birds, Japanese beetles. We started with the patch down by the house just to see if I could do it. The next year I expanded and put in a thousand up here."
Lewis grows five different kinds of blueberries, all cold-hardy varieties that do well at higher elevations. Lewis advertises the farm as a "you-pick" blueberry farm, but pickers can also find blackberry, raspberry, currant and gooseberry patches.
Lewis raises Katahdin sheep, the source of the farm's name, and sells the lambs to local restaurants. He said the breed does well in Pocahontas County.
"They're primarily bred for meat and they do really well in a mountain environment," said Lewis. "They're great for here. They're nematode resistant, you don't have to dock their tails, you don't have to shear them. Grass is about all you need."
According to www.nematode.unl.edu, "nematodes are the most numerous multi-cellular animals on earth and a handful of soil will contain thousands of the microscopic worms, many of them parasites of insects, plants or animals."
It's taken six years for Lewis to get to this point, and he does most of the work himself, but he said he couldn't have done it without his wife and help from some local youngsters.
"She's primarily up at Snowshoe, but I couldn't do this without her. She's the best there is in terms of being a great wife and letting a husband do whatever he wants," joked Lewis. "Brandon Smith is one of the kids that helps me most mornings. Bradley Armstrong, he helps me a lot, and Chase Erlewine, he helps, too. They come in in the morning and help me pick, I hire a lot of the kids around here."
Lewis said there's a lot more to running a farm than one might expect. He works all year long, mostly fixing fences and trellises in the wintertime. Installing the drip irrigation system he devised was also very labor intensive. Lines had to be run from a remote pump house to a large storage tank on the other side of the farm.
"From here I can kick it out to the plants on my grid. I rigged up all the plumbing - it's kind of a country boy plumbing job, but it works," laughed Lewis.
Lewis said he is striving to have an organic farm, but he hasn't figured out a way to stop the Japanese beetles from attacking his crop.
"They're my biggest impediment to becoming organic," Lewis said. "They just come in by the thousands and they're really hard to deal with. They're here one day, the next day your plants are gone. I've gone more organic since we started, though. Originally I used specialized blueberry fertilizer, but now I primarily use sheep manure, so I'm recycling what's being generated on the farm."
Folks coming out to pick don't need to bring anything - the farm provides everything, but some of his return customers show up ready, bucket in hand.
"We have some professional pickers in this county," joked Lewis. "A lot of the same families come year after year, especially the ones with little kids."
Lewis said his season generally runs from July 4 until the first week of August or so. This year they actually opened the second week of June on account of the mild winter, and this has been a particularly good blueberry season.
"It's been a great year," remarked Lewis. "Every year gets better and better though because my bushes get bigger and bigger. Our poundage increases every year."
Lewis said they're open every evening and on weekends, and if you want to come by in the daytime you can call and make an appointment. The Lewis's keep their customers updated on their answering machine, so call for directions or the latest blueberry news. Blueberries run $2 a pound if you pick them yourselves, and the farm also sells 10 pound boxes of picked berries for $30.
It's been a long road to get to the point they're at now, but Lewis is quick to share his advice with budding berry farmers.
"If somebody wanted to do this, build your fences first and have your netting squared away before you plant your first plant. The wildlife doesn't wait on you."