Mike DeGrandchamp’s boast is as big as his sprawling blueberry farm, about half a mile east of Lake Michigan.
“We were in the drive-thru business before McDonald’s,” he said.
In fact, in the late 1950s – more than 15 years before Mickey D’s sold its first burgers from a drive-up window – DeGrandchamp’s mom was selling blueberries to vacationers, most of them from the Chicago area, who’d veer off U.S. Highway 31 on the outskirts of South Haven.
Motorists didn’t have to get out of their cars at Beatrice DeGrandchamp’s roadside stand. A driver would simply roll down the window, hand her a dollar and get three pints of farm-fresh blueberries in return.
The wooden shack with its red and yellow bunting is long gone, but during July and August, the parking lot at DeGrandchamp Farms is crowded with cars. Mike said most of them still have Illinois plates.
For generations, people visiting the beaches at South Haven and beyond have made a point of stopping at the 250-acre farm to buy blueberries. More likely than not, they’ll grab pails and head off into the rows of bushes to pick the navy-colored fruit.
“It’s a family outing to get out on the farm,” said DeGrandchamp, whose last name, in French, means “big field.”
Just a couple of hours’ drive from Chicago, in fields large and small, berries ripen in stages from late June until around Labor Day in the area nicknamed “Blueberry Capital of the World.” U-pick opportunities abound. Restaurants create special dishes featuring the region’s berry bounty, and people plow face first into blueberries during pie-eating contests.
U-pick is small fry compared to Michigan’s commercial harvest of about 100 million pounds a year, most of it from three, lake-hugging counties in the southwest corner of the state. Stretching from South Haven to Holland, the region’s acidic soil and a microclimate created by the lake make ideal growing conditions.
“It’s the lake effect,” said Joe Corrado of Joe’s Blues, a relatively small farm near Bangor, a few miles inland from South Haven. “It provides a layer of protection in the cold.”
“Michigan grows some of the sweetest blueberries in America,” said Frank Corrado, Joe’s father and business partner. “They’re small and they’re sweet.”
The Corrados pride themselves on using natural, pesticide-free growing methods on their 12-acre patch.
“We’ll put our blueberries up against anybody’s,” Frank said. “We don’t sell blahberries. We sell blueberries.”
Visitors to Joe’s Blues can pick their own for $3 a pound or buy them already picked for a couple of bucks more. They’re also available at farmer’s markets and shops in the Chicago area within 24 to 48 hours of picking.
“They don’t sit around very long,” Joe said.
Guests should also make time to take a walk along the “Bees, Please!” trail. Designed for kids but informative for grown-ups, too, the trail teaches visitors about the crucial role bees play in pollinating blueberry bushes and other plants.
Also at Joe’s Blues, people can choose to spend the night in a small bunkhouse once used by migrant workers. Perched at the end of a row of blueberry bushes, the tiny, two-story dwelling sleeps up to four people. It comes with an outdoor shower and a hot tub.
Joe Corrado’s imaginative spin on a hot tub is an old bathtub set on top of breeze blocks in the front yard. The water is heated by lighting a log fire under the metal tub.
The “Pickers’ Shack,” with 365 square feet of comfy living space, is available on Airbnb starting at $70 a night.
The Corrados said business has boomed in recent years following reports about the health benefits of blueberries. WebMD describes them as an “antioxidant superfood” said to lower the risk of cancer and heart disease. They’re also an anti-inflammatory.
“(The publicity) has helped tremendously,” Frank Corrado said.
South Haven’s population of 4,300 swells nearly 15-fold when the National Blueberry Festival arrives. The 56th annual celebration takes place Aug. 8-11, featuring 30 events and 14 concerts – all free.
“It is definitely South Haven’s signature event,” festival director Megan Cairns said. “Blueberries are such a part of our culture.”
The festival kicked off on a recent Thursday with tours of several blueberry farms. Farmers greet guests to explain their operations.
Blueberry pies will be among the products, but some of them will be reserved for the kids and adults hoping to prove their prowess during pie-eating contests.
After chowing down with their hands clasped behind their backs, contestants inevitably walk away with their faces, and sometimes their clothes, covered with purple pie filling and bits of crust.
Children 5 to 12 can participate for free. Adults pay $10 to register. Presumably that’s because they can slobber their way through more pies.
Folks who miss the festival can buy blueberry products year-round at The Blueberry Store along the main drag through South Haven’s downtown.
“This is where blueberries are always in season,” said owner Shelly Hartmann, who also runs True Blue Farms in nearby Grand Junction along with her husband, Dennis.
Walking into the bustling shop, visitors are offered free cups of blueberry-infused coffee. They’re also encouraged to try samples from jars of blueberry butter, jam, jelly and preserves. Each has its own distinct texture and flavor.
“Our philosophy is ‘try it before you buy it,’” she said.
Hartmann estimates that she stocks roughly 750 products, including bratwurst, caramel corn, hard cider, salsa, wine and even dog treats – all made with Michigan blueberries.
Some of the store’s products are incorporated into dishes served at the restaurant at HawksHead, a golf club and inn about 6 miles northeast of downtown.
Overlooking a serene forest, the restaurant features items such as a Buddha bowl with beets, five-grain blend, blueberries, chicken, feta cheese and sweet potato croutons on a bed of greens. The protein-packed dish comes topped with blueberry vinaigrette. Short ribs are coated with the store’s blueberry barbecue sauce, both sweet and tangy. .
Shelly Hartmann was visibly amused while reminiscing about the summer job she had picking berries when she was just 12 years old. Back then, she never imagined that she would marry a fourth-generation blueberry farmer and be instrumental in running not only a store, but also a 1,200-acre farm.
“I swore I would never have anything to do with blueberries again,” she said with a laugh.
(Jay Jones is a freelance writer.)