Chris Barnhill’s blood runs blue, but not because he hails from highborn nobility. The Bladen County farmer is one in a long line of blueberry growers, and his family’s crop has been represented at the N.C. Blueberry Festival under the Blueberry Hill Farms logo since the event’s launch 11 years ago. “I’m fourth-generation, but we’ll probably be coming up on a fifth generation with my son,” he said.
Barnhill entered the family trade at roughly age 6. In short order, he began mastering the various aspects of blueberry production, eventually rising to handle daily operations under his father, Forris Barnhill, who still owns the farm. “I started with a little bit of cutting and graduated to folding boxes,” he said. “Back then I could make a crate in three seconds.”
The Barnhills have been growing the iconic fruit since the 1930s, and their property near Ivanhoe boasts nearly 20 varieties. In addition to the popular Star, Legacy and O’Neal berries, they plant lesser-known variants like San Joaquin and Sierra.
The diverse crop and other advancements have allowed the farm to increase yield from roughly 1,000 pounds per acre in the beginning to nearly 10,000 pounds from the same space today.
The intense degree of cultivation means long hours in the hot sun this time of year, meaning Barnhill doesn’t get much time away from the fields. “It’s very labor-intense, you can’t be a laid-back, do-nothing person,” he explained. “There’s a lot of maintenance, it’s a year-round job.”
With pickers working at a breakneck pace in the fields through the season, which trickles off in late June, Barnhill said he’ll be sending 1,000 flats of berries to Burgaw for the big bash. His sisters help hawk the goods, which he said typically sell in a hurry. “If they don’t sell it, I’ve got to deal with it,” he said with a laugh.