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No-pick: Leduc blueberry farms on M-43 and in Paw Paw to extend season, but cancel U-Pick option

PAW PAW – Come summer, Leduc Blueberries of Paw Paw will offer its traditional fun — an assortment of baked goods at its retail stores, picnic tables and the opportunity to pose for funny pictures or next to the blueberry race car the farm sponsors.

Leduc’s will even offer homegrown strawberries for the first time, ready in June, a month before the blueberries are ripe.

But in news that may shatter the Kalamazoo area’s image of summer, the farm announced that it will no longer allow people to come and pick their own blueberries.

“Yep, I know, we’ve done it forever,” said Chantal Leduc, who owns the 500-acre farm 11 miles west of Kalamazoo with her husband, Joe.

“We’ve been struggling with the decision all winter, but it’s time,” she said.

The world has changed since her husband’s parents, Roger and Jackie Leduc, established the farm in 1955 and began offering a U-Pick option, used then by people who picked in bulk to store up for the winter.

People once picked eight pails per picker; it’s now more likely that eight people will pick one pail, she said.

There’s a lot of waste associated with U-Pick now, too, where amateurs may fail to pick each bush clean, she said.

Liability insurance is through the roof, too, one of the operation’s biggest bills, Chantal Leduc said. Although the farm has never been sued, she said, accidents are not impossible, given the outdoor nature of the work. “There’s no wind in the rows at all,” she said, and one year an ambulance was summoned three times to help people with heat exhaustion.

Nor is a lawsuit impossible to imagine, giving the shifting nature of the farm’s visitors, she said.

For instance, the farm quit offering pickers wagon rides to the fields after a man pushed a woman out of a seat he wanted, she said. ”He was in a big hurry, I guess,” Leduc said.

It’s not unusual these days to hear complaints about everything from the quantity of berries on the bushes to rain and mud, she said. “People forget they are outside. I tell them: ‘We do our best, Mother Nature does the rest.’”

Then there are the burgeoning food safety regulations that suggest each bucket be washed after each use, and buckets not be allowed to touch the ground.

“How do you do that?” Joe Leduc said. “With a crew, I control everything — with a U-Pick you can’t control anyone, and I can’t even do a timely harvest — some days we’ll have 50 people, some days two people.

Regulations even call for flagging of areas where deer have left their droppings in the field to bar picking there and to allow for sanitary disposal of the droppings in authorized containers.

Two full-time people, year round, work to complete the audits required by government agencies and wholesale buyers, Chantal Leduc said.

“It’s a managerial nightmare,” to be spread so thin, Joe Leduc said, and it’s all added up, so that the cost per acre of growing berries has skyrocketed. “With a U-pick that yields 50 percent,” he said, “you just can’t justify the cost that it takes to do that.”

So this year, the farm will hire professionals to do all of the picking, offering all of the berries at its retail outlets, even the smaller, super sweet Jersey variety that has not been available for fresh sale there for nearly 10 years. “It costs more to pick because the berries are not as big,” Chantal Leduc said, but the farm is adding an additional hand crew to accommodate the demand.

Once berry season arrives in June, the public can buy strawberries in quarts or flats at Leduc’s retail stores in Kalamazoo and Paw Paw, where, in July and August, picked blueberries will be available in quarts as well as 5- and 10-pound boxes. Customers who want larger quantities can place orders ahead.

“I really want to focus on what most customers really want from us, “ Joe Leduc said.

U-Pick accounts for only 5 percent of the farm’s business.

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No-pick: Leduc blueberry farms on M-43 and in Paw Paw to extend season, but cancel U-Pick option PAW PAW – Come summer, Leduc Blueberries of Paw Paw will offer its traditional fun — an

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