In their new book, Stephen Spear and Janice Riley tell the story of Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm through photographs, stories, recipes and personal reflection.By Lisa Cavanaugh | Photography by Julia Cumes and Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm
In a lush compendium of prose, poetry, photos, historical data and recipes, blueberry farmers Stephen Spear and Janice Riley share a year of their lives as owners of East Dennis’s Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm in “Out in Blue Fields,” a recent release from Schiffer Publishing. Following a format that unveils 12 months of caring for, harvesting and observing more than 1,500 cultivated blueberry bushes on their 18 acres, Spear and Riley offer much more than a simple calendar of farm work.
Working as co-authors, the pair celebrate the geological formations that give their farm its name, offer an exhaustive list of flora and fauna that inhabit the land and supply the reader with a history of the commercial cultivation of blueberries. But what emerges throughout is their love affair with a wild and magnificent plot of land. Their dedicated nurturance produces thousands of pints of six different varieties of blueberries every year. “We tell little pieces of the story of the farm to everyone who visits,” says Riley, “so this book is the whole story, all in one place.”
Riley, who worked in journalism before she joined the world of blueberries with Spear 17 years ago, weaves a beautiful reflection of nature, the role of small farms on Cape Cod and musings on the past, present and future of Hokum Rock, while Spear offers firsthand accounts of how he and his family started the farm more than 45 years ago. He has had a concurrent career working for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which has afforded him the opportunity to collaborate with many local farmers.
“I’m lucky that I’ve been able to share what I know and help other farmers develop,” says Spear. “There are always new, enthusiastic folks coming in, learning just like I did, trying to work with the land and get local products out. Cape Cod is a wonderful farming community and I’m so encouraged by all the new things happening.”
“People have to be inventive,” says Riley. “We are a part of a history of farming on Cape Cod, where you work in an environment that you have to adapt to, so we have adapted just like generations of other local farmers.”
Spear’s family farm has gone through several overhauls and adaptations in the past four decades, and one of the most successful has been the Pick Your Own blueberry operation in July and August. During a short summer harvesting season, hundreds of visitors to Hokum Rock Farm harvest their own blueberries, reveling in the sweet delight of freshly farmed fruit. “The berries get to ripen on the plant to full flavor,” he says. “There is nothing like a sun-warmed fresh blueberry.”
“It is something so simple and soothing to pick blueberries,” says Riley. “People are constantly thanking us for having this place.”
Spear tells a story of preschoolers coming to the farm for private picks. “Last year, one little girl in the group, just 4 years old, finished picking and just looked up at me and said, ‘I love you.’” He smiles. “That is the power of blueberries.”
Riley admits that it took meeting Spear and tasting his local blueberries to sense that impact. “I never liked blueberries growing up,” she admits. “I always just had store-bought ones, in muffins or pancakes. It wasn’t until I met Steve and he had me taste a Hokum Rock blueberry that I realized how incredibly delicious they could be.”
Spear and Riley had known each other in passing over the years, but were properly introduced almost 20 years ago by a mutual friend, the late naturalist John Hay, with whom Riley was working at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. When Riley told Spear of her dislike of blueberries, he said, “just you wait” and gave her a sample from his farm. “I got to taste this bright blue globe bursting with flavor and now I adore them as much as he does.”
“I seduced her with blueberries,” says Spear, with a laugh.
While most everyone who experiences Hokum Rock embraces Spear and Riley’s vision of preserving the land forever (the property is held as a conservation trust by the Town of Dennis, with Spear and Riley having a life estate on it), challenges in the form of a neighbor cutting down old growth trees on the land caused the pair to reassess how they can best share their mission with the community at large. The neighbor trouble proved to be an impetus for writing the book, which they began two years ago. “We felt we needed to have a testimonial of what the farm is,” says Riley. “If you sit down and read it and see what we’ve accomplished and what we are still trying to do with the land, you would understand why someone trespassing and cutting down trees is so upsetting.”
“There are not a lot of places where people can find blueberries now,” says Spear, “and we have put this here. I guess you could call our place a blueberry zoo.”
Both sense that the story of their blueberry farm could be part of a grander tradition of natural history writing. “Ultimately, it is one more way to share the farm that is so important to us,” says Spear. “But hopefully, it will also make folks think about how, right in your own community, you can have a relationship with the natural world.”
Riley and Spear will sell their book at their farm and through various local independent bookstores, where they will be offering readings and signings throughout the year. Already, they have had glowing responses to the work. “It is wonderful to see that people understand the thing you love,” says Riley. “We’d like it if our book could always be part of the Cape Cod collection in libraries. If someday a future reader says, ‘that looks like an interesting story about people who have been here on the planet and how they lived’—that is what we hope for.”
Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm, 1215 Route 134, East Dennis, 508-385-2768
HOKUM ROCK FARM’S FAVORITE BLUEBERRY BUCKLE
Yields 9 squares.
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup shortening
½ cup milk
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups blueberries
½ cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup cold cubed butter
Grease and lightly flour 9-inch square pan. Wash and drain berries and set aside. In large bowl, mix sugar, shortening (4 tablespoons of soft butter can be substituted) and egg thoroughly. Stir in milk. In small bowl, sift flour, baking powder and salt. Mix into large bowl with other ingredients. Blend in berries carefully. Spread mixture into prepared pan.
To prepare topping, cube butter first, then mix in other ingredients. To achieve desired consistency and taste, add a touch more sugar or flour while mixing. Dab, sprinkle or spread (depending on consistency) over berry mixture. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. When cooled, cut into 3-inch squares.
JOHN’S FLAX SEED BLUEBERRY MUFFINS
Yields one dozen.
1¾ cups whole wheat pastry flour
¾ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
¼ cup melted butter
¾ cup milk
1 cup blueberries
1 teaspoon grated orange or lemon rind
¼-½ cup flax seeds
Sift together dry ingredients. In separate bowl, beat eggs then add butter and milk, and beat together. Combine liquid and dry ingredients. Gently fold in washed blueberries. Add rind and flax seeds. Fill well-greased muffin cups two-thirds full. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes.
BLUEBERRY BANANA OATMEAL BREAD
Yields one loaf.
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup ripe, mashed bananas
1½ cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
2¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon wheat germ
½ cup quick oats
1 cup blueberries
Combine eggs, oil and bananas. Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, wheat germ and salt. Mix in oats. Add dry ingredients to banana mixture. Mix in oats. Add dry ingredients to banana mixture, stirring until just combined. Gently fold in washed berries. Pour into greased and floured 9 x 5 inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Cool completely before cutting; best if baked a day ahead.
APPLE BLUEBERRY CRISP
Yields six servings.
½ cup butter, melted and divided
½ cup brown sugar, divided
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon flour
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups tart apples, pared, cored and sliced
2 cups blueberries
1 cup quick oats
¼ cup chopped walnuts
¼ teaspoon ginger
Whipped cream or ice cream
In a large bowl, combine ¼ cup melted butter, ¼ cup brown sugar, lemon juice, flour and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon. Add apples and washed blueberries, tossing to coat. Place in 8-inch square baking pan. In a small bowl, combine oats, ¼ teaspoon melted butter, ¼ cup brown sugar, walnuts, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon and ginger until well blended. Sprinkle over fruit. Bake at 375 degrees or until fruit is tender and topping is crisp and brown. Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.
Recipes reprinted with permission from “Out in Blue Fields: A Year at Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm” (Schiffer Publications).