WHITE HEATH, Ill. — During blueberry picking season, which kicks off this weekend, Russell McCann of Decatur drives two or three days a week to the Pontious Berry Farm.
"There's no comparison. They're juicier and I think sweeter, too," he said of how Pontious berries stack up those shipped to grocery stores from outside East Central Illinois.
He picks about seven pounds of blueberries two or three times a week during the season, eats them fresh and freezes the rest. This week he just finished eating a bag of berries frozen from last summer.
"I'm so sorry to hear of their closing," he said on Friday before heading to a row of bushes and filling a plastic bucket with berries.
Blueberry picking will continue throughout next month, followed by raspberries. But this is the last season for the Pontious Farm, where berries have been grown for over 40 years.
"We both have full-time jobs off the farm and we can no longer juggle our work and the farm. There's no way ... to keep things in the way our customers have come to expect," said Nancee Moster Pontious, who runs the farm with her husband Rick Pontious. "This is physical labor and we're getting older," she added. They're both 59 years old.
She said they don't have enough revenue to hire someone to replace them.
Rick Pontious's father, Richard W. Pontious, started the farm in 1968 with an acre of strawberries. At one time they had 15 acres of strawberries. The first blueberry bushes were planted in 1971 and agronomists told his father they couldn't grow them because the soil was not acidic enough.
"'This is corn and soybean country,' they told him," Rick Pontious said. But Rick and other members of his family — his dad, two brothers and a sister — would truck in sawdust to lower the soil pH. Over the years they added more fruits and vegetables and in the late 1970s the Pontious family farm was one of the first vendors at farmers markets in area communities, Pontious said.
Over the years they added other fruit like gooseberries and currants and when Nancee became involved they added herbs as well. Horses and llamas greet visitors. And the farm has become home to many rescued dogs and cats. Children often play in the oversized sandbox and swings.
"It's such a wonderful family experience," said Ellen Althaus of Savoy.
She has been coming to the farm for close to 15 years, the last 12 with her three children.
"I just love the whole experience of picking fresh berries. I love that it's based on an honor system and the children love the animals," she said.
Several years ago the Pontiouses started the process of working with a Realtor on selling the farm, but they held off on going forward with any sale.
But this year they could no longer ignore their other work demands. Rick Pontious worked in the telecommunications industry for 30 years before becoming involved in the local construction industry and developing a subdivision in Monticello. Nancee is a technical writer with Intel. She works 40 to 50 hours a week and Rick puts in 50 to 60 hours a week, she estimated.
"It's going to be nice to enjoy the farm instead of working it as much," she said.
Next year Pontious said he expects some people will stop by to pick berries and he'll open the doors to the shed, but he won't maintain the blueberry bushes as customers have come to expect them to be cared for, he said.
Most of the bushes will be left as they are and some areas of the farm may be converted back to row crops.
"I know that's going to be heartbreaking to see," he said.
"This is our home and I don't foresee us moving. For over 40 years Pontious Farm has been here. It's not like we want to give up our legacy. But, if we get an offer we can't refuse," he said, they might consider selling.
In the meantime, the blueberries are ready for picking. Raspberries will ripen in August and herbs and produce like peppers and tomatoes will also be available as they ripen.
Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com