Talking shop with Don Illers, owner of Illers Top of the Hill Berry Farm

Monday, June 4, 2012
Don Illers removes stems from blueberries Friday at Illers Top of the Hill Berry Farm at Millersville. (Fred Lynch)

Although Illers Top of the Hill Berry Farm in Millersville is only open for picking a few weeks each year, it's a year-round job for Don Illers.

"You prune, you spray, you fertilize, there's something to do just about all year long. There's more than people realize," said Illers, who's been growing berries for 31 years.

Illers started with strawberries and then focused his efforts on growing blueberries because they have a longer shelf-life.

His one-acre blueberry patch sits on a farm that's been in his wife Joan Illers' family for more than 200 years.

The couple, who has been married 62 years, rely on their son Chris to help them run their family business now.

While growing blueberries is a family affair for the Illers, so is picking them for many families who visit the farm year after year.

"It doesn't matter how small the children are, they want a bucket to pick berries with too," said Joan Illers.

Anita Smith of Jackson has been bringing her daughters to pick blueberries every summer for 12 years. They picked 10 pounds of berries Friday.

"We always take some to friends that don't have a chance to come out because they're working," Smith said. "We love them with yogurt. We make parfaits with granola and yogurt and sprinkles and berries."

Smith remembers well her first visit to Illers.

"I was picking along and I looked up and noticed a black snake in the bush and it terrified me. When I came up and told Mr. Illers, I was freaked out, but he just laughed and laughed and laughed. It was a rubber snake he'd put up to keep the birds out of the berries," Smith said. "For a few years after that when I would come back, he would always tell me, ‘Now, don't step on any snakes!'"

It's a battle keeping the birds away from the berries, Don Illers said. The berries can also be damaged by extreme cold, one year they lost their entire crop, he said. Dry weather, like the area has seen this year, can also be a challenge. However, the Illers use a drip irrigation system to help keep the berries at their best.

"We've been dripping three nights a week, all night long," Don Illers said.

Their berry picking season usually runs from the first week of June for about three weeks, but this year's crop was early. Picking is winding down now.

"The season can last from two to four weeks, depending on the crowds and the weather," Don Illers said. He has five different varieties of blueberry bushes in his patch, some ripening earlier in the season and some later.

"We don't want them to all ripen at the same time," he said.

The berries come on green before darkening to a purple and then a sweet, deep blue.

Smith, a registered dietitian, said she loves to be able to support growers of local produce.

"I'm teaching my kids about healthy foods and by bringing them out here, they're much more interested in eating them," she said. "Blueberries are on the top of almost every list when you look up power foods, healthy foods or antioxidant foods. They're one of about 10 super foods."

Since the season is winding down, the Illers encourage people to call 204-0937 before they go out to the farm to make sure there are still berries available.

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

Pertinent address:

Highway 72, Millersville, Mo.

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