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FLAT TOP, W.Va. — Back in 1993, when Jim Beha opened a you-pick blueberry operation on his Mercer County farm, it was uncertain whether the 300 bushes then available to pickers would exceed demand or provide the foundation for future growth.

On a sunny afternoon last week, the answer was clear, as Beha, a retired Mine Safety and Health Administration employee, watched dozens of pickers fan out through what is now the largest you-pick blueberry farm in the state.

“We’re still here, and those six rows with the original 300 plants — rows 60 to 65 — are still producing,” Beha said. “If you keep them pruned, they’ll last forever.”

The Beha family’s Blueberry Hill you-pick operation now is comprised of 12,000 plants spread over 15 acres of gently sloping hilltop land.

“Right now, we’re as big as we need to be for the size of our market,” Beha said. “When we started, I expected that most of the people who would come to pick would be local, but it turned out most of our customers come from outside the area, from places as far as Huntington, Bristol, Roanoke and Charleston.”

Fruit from the five species of berries grown at Blueberry Hill ripens at varying times, prolonging the picking season, which generally begins in late June and extends into early August.

At Blueberry Hill’s combination visitor center/weigh station/concession stand, pickers are issued small pails lined with plastic bags in which they will bring their berries home. This year’s price is $2.25 per pound. Cash and personal checks are accepted, but credit and debit cards are not.

Other amenities include restrooms, shaded areas for resting or picnicking and a hand-washing station to remove the sticky, bluish tint from fingers that accompanies picking sessions.

Beha’s now-grown children once staffed the stand. He now likes to hire local high school students to give them sales experience and a chance to earn money for college.

One former employee is preparing to enter law school at West Virginia University, while Emma Brush, of Ghent, a student at Victory Baptist Academy in Beaver, was part of the two-person staff on the job last week.

Blueberry Hill’s slightly acidic soil is ideal for blueberry production, according to Beha, and its location, a few miles west of Winterplace ski area at an elevation of about 3,000 feet, provides an abundance of cold winter days needed for peak berry production.

In recent years, with the exception of 2020, when a late frost took a toll on the berries and COVID-19 prompted Beha to close Blueberry Hill to the public, the you-pick operation has averaged about 10.5 tons of berries sold annually.

“Our record year was 10 or so years back, when we had 15 tons,” he said.

Birds, as well as people, flock to Blueberry Hill to feast on its sweet berries. To keep the birds’ portion of the crop in check, speakers mounted on wooded towers emit, at random intervals, a few seconds of chirps and squawks that scarcely attract the attention of pickers.

“They’re recordings of songbirds known to live in this area being attacked and devoured by predators,” Beha said.

Beha, who retired from the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2009, greeted those arriving at Blueberry Hill with information on which rows were producing the largest and sweetest berries that day, and chatted with pickers working their way through the more than 100 rows of plants.

“A lot of these folks have become our friends over the years,” he said.

“This is a fun thing for families to do together,” said Mary Richmond, of Kimberley, Fayette County, on her first-ever blueberry-picking expedition, accompanied by her husband, Claude, and adult son Jeremy of Oak Hill.

“We’re getting these for a cobbler,” she said. “They seem to taste better when you pick them yourself.”

Hours and days of operation vary at Blueberry Hill and the growing season is approaching its end, so it is worthwhile to call the farm’s Blueberry Hotline at 304-787-3930 to determine the week’s schedule. Last week, it was open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday; 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday; and closed Sunday, Monday and Friday.

To reach Blueberry Hill from the north, follow Interstate 77 south, exit at the Ghent/Flat Top interchange, turn left at the end of the off-ramp and travel about one mile to a stop sign. At the stop sign, turn right onto U.S. 19 and follow it for about 4.5 miles to its intersection with Flat Top-Egeria Road. Turn right on Flat Top-Egeria Road and follow it about a half mile to Blueberry Hill’s driveway, on the left.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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