Retiree finds new career on Greensboro blueberry farm

These blueberries are starting to ripen (and turn blue) at Hemi Blueberry Farm in Greensboro. Chris Hunt for The AJC
Caption
These blueberries are starting to ripen (and turn blue) at Hemi Blueberry Farm in Greensboro. Chris Hunt for The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Hemi Blueberry Farm, near Greensboro, is only an hour and a half from Atlanta, but seems worlds away. A road fringed with wildflowers and scrub brush leads to a gated property straight out of a painting — horseshoe drive, big red barn and the widest of blue skies for a backdrop.

“It’s peaceful, right?” Hector Buitrago said. “Welcome to Hemi Blueberry Farm.” The farm’s name combines “Hector” and “Michele,” Buitrago’s wife.

Hemi Blueberry Farm has a total of 3,200 plants, and soon will have blackberry rows. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Hemi Blueberry Farm has a total of 3,200 plants, and soon will have blackberry rows. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

By Buitrago’s calm demeanor, one never would know that an unseasonable cold snap in early April delivered frost to his budding blueberry flowers, devastating an estimated 80% of this year’s crop. He understands and accepts the fragile nature of farming.

It’s not that he is a seasoned farmer. Hemi was established in 2015, one day after Buitrago retired from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before the CDC, he worked for the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is the best that could happen in my life. I was in traffic from Marietta to Atlanta for 34 years,” he said. In 1999, a friend called him about an affordable plot of land, and he bought it. Years later, he met Scott Nesmith, blueberry breeder in the University of Georgia’s Horticulture Department, who told him the land would be perfect for growing blueberries.

“We’re going to have a blueberry farm!” Buitrago told everyone.

“Back then, this was all tall bushes and trees,” he said, pointing to the straight rows of blueberry plants in four sections. Under the guidance of UGA, he began the process of converting a timber crop to a blueberry farm. A local company cleared 6 of the 21 acres. They hit an aquifer embedded in granite, which is “the best water for blueberries,” Buitrago said. He set about learning everything he could about growing blueberries.

Damaged blueberry blooms (center) are  evidence of the recent frost that devastated 80% of the Hemi Blueberry Farm crop. Although the plant will survive to produce next year, once the bloom is gone, the blueberry is gone for the season. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Damaged blueberry blooms (center) are evidence of the recent frost that devastated 80% of the Hemi Blueberry Farm crop. Although the plant will survive to produce next year, once the bloom is gone, the blueberry is gone for the season. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Blueberries need acidic, organically rich soil that stays moist. After the water situation was handled, Buitrago sent 100 samples of soil to be tested by the UGA Cooperative Extension service. Results were on the money: sandy lime soil. “We have magic soil,” he said. “It’s an oasis!”

Next came the hoeing and tilling. Buitrago bought a John Deere tractor with an attachment that lays the plastic that aids in mulching and weed control. That first year of planting, they dug 1,700 holes for blueberry plants. Blueberries are very difficult to grow from seed, he said.

In the center of the blueberry plots is a water well with two insulated filters. Buitrago designed the entire irrigation system himself, with four stations running from the central well. His dripping system waters 90 minutes every day, while a nearby pond also collects rainwater. “Working with the EPA, I know a lot about irrigation,” he said.

Hector Buitrago is owner of Hemi Blueberry Farm in Greensboro. Chris Hunt for The AJC
Caption
Hector Buitrago is owner of Hemi Blueberry Farm in Greensboro. Chris Hunt for The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

At the edge of the farm are three large piles of aging pine bark. Everything at the farm is done naturally. In 2020, Hemi earned the distinction of being certified naturally grown (CNG), meaning no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or GMOs — just like organic farms. “It’s nice to be conscious of the environment,” Buitrago said.

Walking past the chickens that he lets loose among the berry plants, Buitrago talked about the special formula he developed for his bushes. Blueberries have fine roots, so loose soil is ideal. He uses aged pine bark, peat moss, coconut fiber, compost and local soil. Generally, he noted, blueberry plants are pest-free and take care of themselves.

This barn at Hemi Blueberry Farm includes living space and an indoor-outdoor kitchen. Chris Hunt for The AJC
Caption
This barn at Hemi Blueberry Farm includes living space and an indoor-outdoor kitchen. Chris Hunt for The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Buitrago said he originally had 19 lanes, with 42 plants in each one. He now has 3,200 plants in tidy, meticulously groomed rows. “The most terrible work on this farm is picking weeds,” he added.

Hemi Farm grows six types of blueberries, most of them developed and patented by Nesmith, and all are varieties developed to grow well in central Georgia. Blueberries are Georgia’s most lucrative fruit and, according to the North American Blueberry Council, perennially rank in the nation’s top three producers.

Georgia’s blueberry season begins in April and ends in July. Each variety’s season lasts about two to three weeks, meaning multiple varieties are required to sustain a growing season for farmers. There are four types of blueberry bushes: highbush, the most widely cultivated; rabbiteyes, larger than a highbush and native to the southeast U.S.; Southern highbush; and lowbush. Some are engineered for more yield, others for their size or early ripening.

In his first planting season, Buitrago planted two types: Vernon and Camellia. Vernons, an early-season highbush with high yields, were developed by Nesmith in 2004. The bushes were full of flowers before the April frost burned them. Buitrago touched a discolored bloom, and it disintegrated in his hand. “This is so sad,” he said. The Camellias, he noted, were doing the best before the frost. The Southern highbush variety, developed by Nesmith in 2005, is the first of the farm’s harvest.

These are some of the blueberry plants that survived a recent unseasonable frost. Many factors go into which blooms survive a frost, including location, wind direction and, sometimes, plant variety. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
These are some of the blueberry plants that survived a recent unseasonable frost. Many factors go into which blooms survive a frost, including location, wind direction and, sometimes, plant variety. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Each time he passed bushes that were flowering, Buitrago’s smile widened. There are so many elements that play a part in a successful harvest, he said. Chill hours are critical to growing blueberries in the South. Those are the number of hours at 45 degrees, between Oct. 1 and Feb. 15, which are necessary for Georgia fruit crops to bloom.

Next to ripen are Krewer, named in honor of UGA blueberry pioneer Gerard Krewer. They are a high-yield rabbiteye variety, large and easy to pick — the perfect berry for a you-pick farm.

Titans ripen next. Those jumbo berries, developed by Nesmith in 2010, are great for hand-harvesting, and stand out as a dark shade of green. They are close to some of the farm’s pollinators, honeybees that live in hives in the corner of the property. Hemi’s blueberry honey sells swiftly, due to the blueberry flavor captured in its light amber sweetness.

A red barn that Buitrago built, reclaiming wood from a 1940s era barn, houses an indoor-outdoor kitchen and a master suite. On the side porch, he offered frozen blueberries and a cup of coffee — made from Nariño beans grown on his grandfather’s farm in Colombia, now run by his cousin. When Buitrago was a child, he spent his vacations there, learning farm skills, like weeding by hand and harvesting honey.

The living space at Hemi Blueberry Farm includes an open-air dining area. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
The living space at Hemi Blueberry Farm includes an open-air dining area. Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Buitrago sells blueberry preserves at farmers markets in Madison, Athens and Lake Oconee. The you-pick side of things for blueberries may not happen this year, due to the frost, but he also grows four types of muscadine grapes that are fruiting very well. And, just past the jumbo Titans, is an area cleared for 400 thornless blackberry bushes.

This is a jar of Hemi Blueberry Farm's certified natural grown preserves. Chris Hunt for The AJC
Caption
This is a jar of Hemi Blueberry Farm's certified natural grown preserves. Chris Hunt for The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

“Touching the environment, you have more clarity of your mind,” Buitrago said. “It’s a joy to live.”

He opened a box containing a tool that helps to descale the lines of the mineral-rich Hemi Farm aquifer. “This is what I am going to do today,” he said. “I am learning every day.”

For more information about Hemi Blueberry Farm, visit hemiblueberryfarm.com or the farm’s booth at the Farmview, Athens and Harmony farmers markets.