Fruit Farmer: Bruce Van Natta reaps benefits from Westfield blackberry farm

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    Bruce and Alison Van Natta’s blackberries are used in Blackhawk Winery’s blackberry wine. (Photo by Anna Skinner)
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    From left, Bruce, Kate, Will, Alison and Thomas Van Natta near the five acres of blackberries at their Westfield home. (Photo by Anna Skinner)
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    Bruce Van Natta inspects a flower on one of his blackberry plants. (Photo by Anna Skinner)
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    The Natchez berry can grow larger than an average berry. (Submitted photo)

 

By Anna Skinner

Originally, SurReal Farms was for alpacas. Then, Bruce Van Natta and his wife, Alison, considered lavender, elderberry and choke berry. Finally, the Westfield couple settled on establishing five acres of blackberries on their 28-acre property on 161st Street and have experienced nothing but success.

The blackberries began three years ago, but this summer will be the second harvest, as the first year the couple just cut the plants back for root development.

“Alpacas we could figure out, but we weren’t farmers,” Bruce said. “We looked at lavender and then thought about elderberry and choke berry. It’s a native plant but because of the labor costs being so great, the nutraceutical companies wouldn’t buy our berries, so we would’ve been restricted to farmers markets.”

A woman in the industry told Bruce about blackberries, and he purchased trellis-growing systems from Ft. Wayn. to better grow his blackberries.

Throughout the five-acre blackberry farm, Bruce said he has approximately 3,500 plants. Last year, for the first harvest, the SurReal blackberries were sold in commercial grocers, like Kroger and Costco. The blackberries also stayed in the community, as The Local, 14655 Gray Rd., Carmel, used them in homemade blackberry cobbler. Blackhawk Winery in Sheridan used 1,200 pounds of berries to make blackberry wine, which sold out. This year, Blackhawk Winery is planning to receive 2,000 pounds of berries.

Other companies who use the blackberries are Nicey Pop in Broad Ripple, Belgian Horse Winery and Simplicity Juice.

“We have four varietals of berries. They all taste and look different,” Bruce said.

The berry varietals include Natchez, Ouachita, Chester and Triple Crown.

“The Natchez berries are so big, they are hard to get into the clamshells,” Alison said. “They are huge and delicious. They are high in sugar content, a really good eating berry, and they look cool.”

By the end of June, the Van Nattas and their staff will be harvesting every day for seven to eight weeks. The Chester berries last longer and are harvested into September. Berries can’t be picked wet due to mold, and once picked, the berries have to be cooled within 45 minutes.

“Our very first season was incredibly rainy, and we were pulling our hair out, but we got so lucky because we didn’t have any we had to get rid of,” Alison said. “The reason we have four different varietals is we have early yielding fruit to mid-time and later so we are not picking all at one time.”

As they continue to expand their berries, the Van Nattas are considering a U-Pick event for families and kids to pick the fruit on their own to take home. However, that hasn’t been established yet.

“We always liked the fruit, but we ate our weight in blackberries last year,” Bruce said. “Farming isn’t easy, we’ve figured that out, but that’s just part of it.”

Meet the Van Nattas

Kids: Thomas Alan Van Natta, 12, twins Will and Kate, 8 1/2.

Work: In addition to farming, Bruce co-owns Meridian Plastic Surgeons, where he met Alison, who worked as a nurse. The couple has been married 13 years.

Berry goal this year: 7,500 cases, approximately 40,000 pounds of berries.

Other uses for the berries: The Van Nattas donated berries to the Salvation Army and Orchard Schools in Indianapolis, where the Van Natta children attend. Every class did a project with the berries to make jelly and learn of the blackberry life cycle.