MANSFIELD, Ohio — A quarter-century ago, Steve and Lisa Beilstein never thought they’d be where they are at this very instant: seated among customers in the garden-style tea room and gift shop they operate alongside Richland County’s The Blueberry Patch, Ohio’s biggest blueberry farm.
Their success is perhaps surprising for a couple with no farm or horticulture background and spurred on only by their drive to dream and build a hobby into a lucrative business.
In 1981, Steve Beilstein and his brother Doug purchased a property just outside the Mansfield city limits. The duo — Steve an architect, Doug a dentist — “wanted something to do on the weekends” and had hopes of turning the land littered with brush and scrubby grass into an apple orchard.
Neither brother had any horticultural background, but they got good advice: Get the soil tested before planting the apple trees.
“It came back and said you will not grow apples very well on this ground, but would you consider blueberries?” Steve related.
He researched the idea and, through a book he calls ‘the blueberry Bible of the time,’ learned the berries were machine harvestable.
“And that sold me. I felt we could do with less labor, and that was always an issue. I thought this might be a good way to start.”
In 1983, the brothers planted 1,500 Blue Ray berry plants. They, in all their greenness, promptly killed 750 of them.
“I was disappointed and realized quite quickly that just reading a book was not the road to success.”
The Beilsteins knew they needed to learn more if they wanted to be successful.
They visited other growers, learned about soil amendments and blueberry varieties, and found if they were going to grow blueberries, their main ingredient was water, and lots of it.
The Beilsteins drilled a well, laid irrigation pipe, replanted their fields, and gave their venture another shot.
The second time around was a success and today, the Steve Beilstein family — brother Doug retired five years ago — has turned the once-overgrown parcel into a successful blueberry farm.
When word of their operation spread, the Beilsteins found there was a huge local demand for the blueberries. But their original 1,500 plants weren’t going to get them far if the buckets they kept filling couldn’t keep up with the hungry mouths waiting.
The couple investigated what it would take to propagate their own bushes on the farm, eventually put up a nursery greenhouse, and have since grown every single one of the 18,000 blueberry bushes on the farm from cuttings.
“Now we are self-sustaining and we get our own production of whips from our own fields,” Steve Beilstein said.
But the patch’s growth didn’t stop there. Tapping into another market, the Beilsteins stepped up their nursery work to offer rooted cuttings to big-box stores like Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot, and blueberry bush starts for landscapers and other berry growers.
Steve Beilstein estimated he sells 600,000 rooted cuttings to wholesale customers every year.
“The goal is to make our farm have an income source 12 months of the year, which is very difficult to do in farming unless you’re in dairy. In fruit, it rarely happens. We’re there,” Steve said.
The patch has become a destination for many, from the schoolchildren who visit to learn about berries to the busloads of retirees who roll into the driveway every July and August to heap buckets full of nickel-size berries.
The farm offers 27 varieties of berries to serve their u-pick, retail and wholesale markets.
Fresh berries not sold directly to consumers at the farm are frozen and offered year-round in the patch’s gift shop and to meet wholesale demands of pie bakers and jam makers.
Today, aside from the blueberries and bushes they sell from the farm, the Beilsteins also have a greenhouse with flowers, bedding and vegetable plants for spring income, and sell raspberries in the fall.
The original greenhouse is now a gift shop offering blueberry-related items and most anything except the kitchen sink; and their newest venture, the 2-year-old European garden-style Blossoms Cafe.
This fall, the family is adding a haunted hayride and themed entertainment to the mix, Steve said.
“Little by little, it’s been a gradual process. It’s totally been an evolution,” Lisa said of their steady growth.
“Some people just come for berries, and still people who live locally don’t realize we have anything besides the gift shop,” Lisa said.
“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Are those really blueberries out there? Do you grow blueberries?’ It’s amazing,” Lisa said.
“I don’t know of any other business around that offers as many unique things as we do.”
The Beilsteins say they’re lucky to have found enjoyment and success with their sons in this business that is still mostly considered a hobby.
Steve maintains his architectural business full-time and splits long days between the blueberry fields and greenhouses, the drafting table, and his other hobby as an apprentice auctioneer.
The Beilsteins say none of their sons — Ryan, 24; Andrew, 18; Grant, 14; and Ben, 10 — shows an interest in taking over the family farm, but that doesn’t stop the couple from moving forward.
In August, they’ll plant 7,000 more blueberry bushes as they aim to double the farm’s blueberry acreage in the next decade.
“We change things. We add and keep growing. Part of the business thing is to keep new things in front of your customers,” Steve said.
“You need to reinvent what you’re doing. You never want them tired of you. You want them always on the edge of their seat and wanting to come back.”