A small farm’s global approach to year round blueberries
By Craig Reed
From the humble beginnings of a 3-acre blueberry field that needed some tender loving care, Dave and Barbara Brazelton and their family have established an international business.
Fall Creek Farm & Nursery got its start in the Lowell area when the Brazeltons bought the property in 1978. In the last 15 years, the business has expanded and now has farm nurseries in Mexico, Peru, Spain, the Netherlands and South Africa.
Dave and Barbara began as a 2 person workforce after they bought the small farm. Now the business has 800 employees.
The mission of Fall Creek is to build a world with better blueberries through exceptional plants, relationships, innovation and customer success.
Through research and development in its greenhouses, the company has created many new varieties of highbush blueberries and now sells about 50 varieties in 1- and 2-liter pots. Nurseries were established in other countries to develop blueberry varieties that would thrive in those specific climates and soils.
The goal is to develop blueberry varieties to make the fruit available year-round.
“We go where blueberries grow,” says Barbara.
“Blueberries are a global crop,” says Amelie Aust, Dave and Barbara’s daughter and the company’s executive chair of the board. “The only way to grow and deliver blueberries all year long is to have and grow different varieties at different latitudes. We want consumers to have delicious, fresh blueberries all year.”
The journey for this international blueberry business began when Dave, at 14 years old, visited his cousin’s New Hampshire home and 1,000-acre blueberry farm. He worked on the farm that summer and was the first person in the field to hand harvest more than 1,000 pounds of the fruit in a single day.
He had an immediate love for the berry, never forgot that experience and dreamed of having his own farm in the West. After Dave, a veterinarian tech, and Barbara, a nurse, married, they began searching for a farm. They sent a letter to several blueberry farms in Oregon, expressing a desire to buy a farm if it was available.
Marge Calkins, a recipient of one of those letters, called the couple and said, “I need you to come buy my farm.”
The 25-acre farm was established with a small blueberry wholesale division and a retail ornamental nursery business. Barbara tried to explain to Marge the farm was beyond the couple’s budget, but Marge was flexible in the conditions of the sale. By the end of that year, the Brazeltons owned the property and changed the name to Fall Creek, so people would have an idea of where it was located just outside Lowell.
Initially, the retail nursery and a landscaping business supported the family. The blueberry field grew to 15 acres, and during harvest, Barbara and the couple’s 2 small children, Amelie and Cort, delivered the fruit to consumers.
When Gregg and Becky Vollstedt joined the business as partners, Dave had more time to focus on grower support and sales. Dave maintained a science-like approach to blueberry farming, collecting extensive production data on every variety and sharing the information with the industry. Gregg took on production responsibilities, and Barbara and Becky did the administrative work.
When Hort Research of New Zealand made Fall Creek the exclusive nursery for its first patented variety, Reka, it was a major milestone for the Lowell-based company.
Fall Creek’s plant quality and uniformity became known throughout the industry.
The health benefits of blueberries were also recognized and published during the 1990s, adding to the industry’s growth. The Brazeltons and Vollstedts put together an aggressive plan to continue building the nursery’s infrastructure and team to be responsive to increased berry demands.
In 2008, Amelie and her husband, Boris Aust, and Cort returned to the farm after earning college degrees and working elsewhere. The grown children brought experiences from their work and international travels to the family business.
In 2010, the Vollstedts sold their company shares to the Brazeltons, allowing that family’s second generation to take on more key roles in the operation.
“Cort came with a lot of background in fresh fruit,” Barbara says. “He brought a lot of practical ideas. We decided to go where blueberries grow.”
Cort had spent time in Chile and Mexico, Amelie had a law background, and Boris had banking experience.
“For us, it seemed like a second founding group,” Amelie says. “We had to reinvent the company as a group of 5.”
That led to Fall Creek starting nurseries in other countries to research and develop blueberry varieties on location for those growers.
“Our goal is to try to grow better and better blueberries,” Barbara says. “There are so many ways to improve blueberries. It’s a very innovative industry.”
Because of labor issues for the growers, Amelie says the company is working to reinvigorate some varieties and to research others, so their flavor and firmness are maintained when mechanically harvested, eliminating handpicking.
“We want to improve a berry’s journey from the field to the consumer,” Amelie says. “I’m in awe of how all this has developed. I’m grateful for the journey, but it’s not over. We’re not done.
“I’m amazed that we’ve managed to figure out how to run a professional, competitive business without the backing of venture capital,” she adds. “We’re a family-owned business. We’ve found a way to keep the magic in our core values, things that motivate us down to the folks who are potting plants. We have a passion for what we do with blueberries.”