Interview: Bryan Jewel & Matt McMahon

Interview: Bryan Jewel & Matt McMahon

Unlike many of our family farmers, Bryan Jewel and Matt McMahon did not get their start with a background in farming or agriculture. As business partners, in-laws, and friends, however, the two would go on to start their family farm, Pure Berry Co., based in Vineland, New Jersey. " It came together one winter season,” says Brian.

Why did you start farming in the first place? What is your passion for farming today?

BJ: Never grew a plant until I was in my late 20s. I never even knew a farmer: I worked on Wall Street during the financial crisis. I had a background in business and was talking about opening my own business with my brother in law. It came together one winter season. Could we even work together? We did a couple of jobs together and knew we could make it. Gradually, we phased out of New York, moved down to South Jersey, and just went for it. We dropped everything and went for it. We didn’t know how much work it would be. All our families had to come out in the morning to pick. We’d get in the truck in opposite directions and go to all the farm stands and sell ‘em. We wouldn’t come home till they were sold.

MM: The first person that we ever sold blackberries; I still sell berries to him. We sell him for 1 flat a week. Our original customers gave us great feedback and helped us grow. We stay loyal to our customers because they made it happen for us. It was true door to door selling.


What strengths does a person need to farm? What type of character does a person need to have?

BJ: You need resilience, you have to be a perfectionist when it comes to berries. For resilience, there are always issues that affect them. You have to stay up with the berries. We treat these berries like they are our children. This winter it was cold, they needed extra nutrients. You have to be committed to them and be a perfectionist. There are only good blackberries and bad blackberries, you need to stay focused on those six weeks.

MM: We strive to get our berries from the field, from the time they are picked to the cooler in under five minutes. That gives them longer shelf life, holds that flavor so much better. You can smell berries when they get warm. That’s them fermenting, that’s gaining the wrong kind of flavor.

BJ: We were so stressed out.


What is your favorite crop to grow and why?

BJ: Blackberries is my favorite crop. It’s my favorite because of the challenge. They are the hardest berry to grow. We have a lot of blueberry growers around us. They grow some blackberries, but don’t understand them. Blackberries are these delicate flowers.


What has been the benefit of selling wholesale to a company like Seal the Seasons?

BJ: The benefit is we can pick like you would pick a berry in your yard. For the fresh market, you have to pick in advance, you can’t get as sweet. With Seal the Seasons we can wait that extra day so the berries are their absolute sweetest. We can pick 2 days later so we get that flavor and seal it in the package. No need for shelf life because it's frozen within 24 hours.


What do you like to make out of your own produce?

BJ: Blackberry brandy is my favorite. Blackberry banana smoothies I drink all winter long. Blackberries, banana, vanilla yogurt, milk, ice


Do you have any special harvest traditions or post-harvest traditions?

BJ: At the end of our season we have a big BBQ, part for us, and all our workers. Matt and I barbeque for everyone. Make drinks, cocktails. The workers help out, they bring cakes, Mexican dishes, all kinds of different stuff. Everyone knows the party is going to be on a Friday. Usually, we work in the morning then party lunch onward.


What do normal people not know about farming or your farm specifically that they should?

BJ: There are farmers all around them. There are farmers everywhere. We are 20 minutes from Philly. Plenty of people in our town that don’t know blackberries were even grown around here. When we say local they don’t know how close local actually is to them. It's not a faraway place that these fruits and veggies come from, they could drive by and see it.


How has changing weather affected your farming? What percent of crop do you lose each year to weather?

BJ: Weather’s problem is rain. Rain makes the berries soft and they can't be sold. We had a really cold winter this last year, one of the varieties didn’t like that, we lost 30%. There is only so much you can do to stop it. High tunnels are 70,000 per acre, way too much. You have to live with mother nature and stay ahead of it. Pick in advance, stay ahead of it.


What is the biggest challenge on your farm right now?

BJ: The biggest challenge is weather and labor. We’re lucky here because 3 or 4 of our top workers are family. They worked for another farmer before, now they’ve moved over. They are family to us. Without them, there is no way we could operate like we do. They help with labor, logistics, and now they actually understand the plants and know the diseases, they tell us something is wrong with the plants in the field.


What advice would you give a brand-new farmer on their first harvest?

BJ: Start small! Make sure you really love farming. It's not easy and you’ll have to wear all the hats. You’re going to have to be a business owner, a salesman. You’ll have to do the dirty jobs like cleaning the bathroom and office. You’ll realize all the aspects of starting out.

MM: Make sure you love what you’re doing. IF you don’t love it, it’ll show through in the product.


What is Pure Berry Co.’s plans for the future?

BJ: We’re looking to expand our crops into new plants. We’re looking at raspberries, we're looking at organic. Organic is for sure a big selling point in the fresh market. There are only 2 barriers. Rain and fruit flies. Spotted Wing prevents us from being organic. There isn’t a way to take care of spotted wing with organic. Our tolerance is 0% for worms with fruit. With organic, you’ll get spotted wing worms.

MM: Something we’re always trying to do, balance the quality with the sweetness. If you pick too early, they are too tart – and I don’t like that either. I want a customer to buy my berries over and over, they need to be sweet but have a shelf life.

BJ: It’s a lot about what you put into them and your harvest techniques. I think it's great what doing because we can pick them when they are actually ripe, and the customer will actually know that. They’ll buy them 2-3-4 times per week instead of just buying them once.