Nettleton man finds thrill in blueberry farming

In 1981, Mike Duckworth bought 100 acres of land in Nettleton at an auction. And on it, he built a little getaway cabin to share with his wife, Carol, and their two children, Mike Jr. and Allyson.
Over the years, the Duckworths would leave their Lee Acres home in Tupelo for a long weekend in the country. And then on Sundays, back to town they’d go.
After the children were grown, Mike and Carol decided to sell their Tupelo home and live in the cabin temporarily, while they built a larger home nearby.
But the economy didn’t cooperate and today, the couple finds themselves still living in the little cabin in the woods that’s now surrounded by more than 250 thriving blueberry bushes.
“When I was a kid growing up in Pensacola, Fla., there was this man who had blueberries and we’d go pick them,” said Mike Duckworth, 66. “I thought I’d try me some.”
He traveled to Seminary, Miss., and bought 100 plants and planted them in the fertile soil. Those plants made berries the next year, so Duckworth returned to Seminary and bought another 150 in 2003.
He planted two varieties of rabbiteye blueberries: Premier and Climax.
“They do really well in this zone,” Duckworth said. “One comes in earlier than the other. I’ve kept them irrigated this year, so that even the ones that come in early have made a little later.”

Been there, done that
Duckworth is a self-described jack-of-all-trades and doer-of-all-things.
He grew up in Cleveland, and started college at Mississippi State in 1962. He played on the football team from ’62 to ’65 and was on the Liberty Bowl Team in 1963.
From 1971 to 1978, he was an executive with the Yocona Area Council of the Boy Scouts. He’s worked offshore in the oil fields twice, once in the 1960s and once in the 1980s.
Duckworth calls himself a retired residential contractor, although he still does part-time emergency contract work for FEMA. He spent a year in the 9th Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and he was in Galveston after Hurricane Ike.
In 2001, he was a salesman selling school supplies when, three weeks after Sept. 11, half of the sales force was terminated. He lost his job.
And planted blueberries.
“The only problem I have are the deer,” he said. “And it’s not that they eat them. They come in here with their horns and rub up against the bushes and tear the branches off. The birds don’t bother them.”
Duckworth lets friends and family pick, and he’s even let strangers come in and pick a gallon or two for a nominal fee ($8 per gallon if you pick; $16 a gallon if he picks).
He’s sold some of his berries at farmers’ markets in Tupelo, Oxford, Taylor and West Point.
“I don’t make much money off this,” he said. “It’s just the enjoyment of it. It’s been great to see something grow that’s so good for you. They’re so healthy, what with the antioxidants and all. I eat them four to five times a week.”

Grow your own
Duckworth uses a herbicide on the plants before the berries emerge, but once fruit appears on the bushes, he doesn’t spray anymore. He keeps the pH level below 5.5, because blueberries like acidic soil, and the bushes are planted in full sun.
“Three years ago, we caught a bad frost and we didn’t make a single berry,” he said. “This year, I was a little worried because we had a frost that left ice on the windshield. But they did make and they’re really good.”
During harvest season, Allyson, a real estate agent, and Mike Jr., who is in nursing school, often help pick and freeze the berries.
Allyson puts a colander beneath a bush and runs her fingers along a branch. Dozens of plump blueberries fall into the colander and some spill on the ground for the dogs to enjoy.
“Some of these things will get as big as your thumbnail,” Duckworth said, as he surveyed some berries Allyson picked and popped one in his mouth to sample. “Um, um, that’s good.”
Other than putting a little aluminum sulfate around the bushes in February for fertilizer and pruning them after they produce, the bushes are practically maintenance-free, he said.
“You ought to try growing them yourself,” Duckworth said. “Put you four to five bushes in your backyard and I promise you they’ll make more berries than you and your neighbors can eat.”

Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal