2016-06-01 / Dishing

Cultivating a Fruitful Life

Anne Quinn Corr | Photos by Matt Fern

Mark and Laura MacDonald like to play in the dirt. Both have been at it for a long time — and it is their intention to dig in even deeper now that they have their own demesne.

Their farm, Bee Tree Berry Farm, stretches over 20 acres on a slope in Nittany Valley, with a view of verdant fields as far as the eye can see. The farm is named after the black walnut tree at the end of the lane that was filled with an auspicious hive of busy bees when the couple first looked at the property. The land had been fallow for decades, so turning it into a productive farm has been a daunting task. But these farmers, who chose the area because they always traveled to Central Pennsylvania to camp at Poe Paddy State Park with their kids and extended family, were up for the challenge.

Transplants to the region — Laura is from Kennett Square and Mark hails from Hamilton, Ontario — the MacDonalds met in 1980 at Longwood Gardens where she was a gardener and he was a visiting horticulture student from Niagara College in Ontario. While dating they dreamed about “living off the land,” like many from that era of self-reliance. After marrying in 1981, Mark held several superintendant positions at various Pennsylvania country clubs while Laura managed greenhouses. They raised their three daughters in York County, and the girls are now grown with families of their own.
At the crossroads of life, the couple decided to get back to their dream and to home in on the geographic area that was always their ideal vacation spot — Central PA.

They bought the 20-acre parcel — which was a week away from the auction block — in 2011 and started designing an efficient domicile for the property. With the help of an Amish carpenter, they built their three-bedroom, two-bath, two-story house with a deck that affords a view of the valley beyond their acres of berries. They have room for children and grandchildren who enjoy visiting the farm and picking and eating the fruit, especially the raspberries. They are close to I-80 for a fast route to Canada, close to their beloved Poe Paddy for camping and fishing, and near their old friends on Jacksonville Road. Now settled, they are learning the lay of their land and are making the acquaintance of many other homesteaders in Nittany Valley.

The MacDonalds designed Bee Tree Berry Farm as a U-pick operation, planting the first third of an acre of strawberries in August 2012 and selling their first berries in May 2013. “The first year we had berries, we went to the Bellefonte Farmers Market with 10 quarts,” says Mark. “And we sold out in five minutes,” says Laura. They now know to take far more than that to the North Atherton and Lemont farmers markets. “Someone has to stay at the farm for the U-pick customers, who do us a great service. We could never harvest all the fruit by ourselves. In 2015 we planted 210,000 strawberry plants and 3,000 raspberry plants and added 5,000 strawberry plants this spring. Continual picking keeps the plant producing and enables us to not use pesticides since there is no ripe fruit to encourage insects,“ says Mark.

“It’s taken us three years to figure this all out, but the goal of our farm is to give people several different fruits to come out and gather. Most U-pick operations have a single crop, but we have multiple options, with 2.5 acres in strawberries, 1.5 acres in raspberries, and 3 acres in blueberries,” says Mark. The couple also cultivates a plant popular with our neighbors to the north but virtually unknown in the U.S. — the haskap, or blue honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea, also known as honeyberry. “There are only 22 cultivated acres in North America — and they are in Saskatchewan,” Mark says. The fruit is popular in Russia and Japan, where it is known as the “fruit of longevity.”

The MacDonalds among their turnips, which serve as a cover crop for some strawberries.The MacDonalds among their turnips, which serve as a cover crop for some strawberries.While strawberries are their main crop, the other U-pick options rotate through with raspberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries and elderberries — all plants that don’t require as much stooping to pick. They grow red, black and champagne varieties of currants, the tart gem so highly prized in Europe, and recently upped their elderberry planting from 20 to 60 to keep up with demand.

“People were really glad to find a source for elderberries,” says Mark, “for jams and for wine. Their antioxidant benefit is huge.” Laura adds that some customers purchased elderberries to make a tonic to protect against colds in the winter. Though the MacDonalds do grow some cold-weather crops like Brussels sprouts, onions and sweet potatoes, they don’t have the time during the main growing season to deal with vegetables that require a lot of tending when their berries are coming on.

Living their dream, the MacDonalds enjoy every aspect of the operation. They maintain a lively Facebook page with updates about availability of fruit and prices, currently $2.50 per pound for strawberries. Mark is usually the one to tend the farmers market vendor tables, and he enjoys the interaction with all the customers who are so happy to see his bright baskets of berries. Laura is generally the one who stays at the farm to facilitate the pickers who arrive to do the harvesting. In season, they hire a part-time helper to pick for the markets and to keep a supply of berries for passersby to purchase on a wagon under the totemic bee tree that they consider a blessing. •SCM

Terry Walker Joy's Fresh Strawberry Pie
In 1979 my friend Terry Walker, now Terry Walker Joy, gave me this classic recipe, as simple as it is sublime. Makes 8 servings

1 prebaked pie crust
1 qt. strawberries
1⁄2 c. plus 2 Tbsp. water
3⁄4 c. sugar
Dash of salt
2 heaping Tbsp. cornstarch
Whipped cream for on top, optional

Bake the crust “blind” — i.e. unfilled, with holes poked in the bottom of the crust so it doesn’t puff up like a derby. Use a frozen crust and follow the directions on the package or make your own.
Wash and hull the berries (remove the green tops). Choosing ones that are not perfect looking, place 1 cup of the berries into a small saucepan with 1/2 cup water, sugar and dash of salt. Heat mixture until berries soften, then crush them with the back of a spoon. Mix the cornstarch with 2 Tbsp. of water. When the crushed berries are hot, add the cornstarch/water slurry to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute until the mixture is thick and clear.

Arrange the remaining 3 cups of strawberries in the baked pie shell. Pour the thickened crushed strawberry mixture on top and chill in the refrigerator until the pie is set. To serve, top with whipped cream if desired.

Bee Tree Berry Farm is open every day for picking, from the day after Memorial Day until the first frost. 494 Benner Road, Bellefonte, 814-383-2134. •SCM

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