‘Out in Blue Fields’ follows a year in the life at a beloved Cape Cod blueberry farm
Imagine, for a moment, you are standing in a field on a summer morning with family and friends. You are picking sun-warmed blueberries. You pop one into your mouth. It’s sweet and moist and delicious. … That could be called contentment, or, for us, blueberry bliss.
It is with this reverence for the tiny yet mighty blueberry, and for their farm on Cape Cod where they grow the flavorful fruit, that Janice Riley and her husband Stephen Spear share an insightful, down-to-earth look into their life in “Out in Blue Fields: A Year at Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm.” Released earlier this year, the book—the couple’s first—details month by month, in journal-like fashion, the rituals of their cultivation efforts and the evolution of their blueberry plants (they have 1,500) over the course of one year. Each chapter also reflects on the array of flora and fauna that inhabit the 18-acre Dennis farm—and both the beauty and the downsides that comes with having to share the land with this wildlife.
Spear’s four decades of roots at Hokum Rock Farm and Riley’s background as a journalist are evident in the authenticity and simply vivid nature of “Out in Blue Fields.” Writing a book about their life on the farm, they both say, came about naturally—their monthly “Farm Journal” blogs on their website inspired them to want to share more. “We wanted to take the digital story that we had, the stories that we shared in snippets, and turn it into a compendium of the farm,” explains Riley. “Our approach to the book was to do it in that classic nature writing structure. We wanted it to be narrative driven.”
“There are many books out there about how to grow blueberries,” Spear notes, like the memoir-style of one they read about a farm in Virginia, and Wendell Berry’s poetically written books about the farming lifestyle. “We took an all-of-the-above approach,” he says, referring to the styles of these books, “because we’re all of the above.” References to literary works, like the poetic musings of Walt Whitman and W.B. Yeats, are woven through each chapter and help capture the wonders of the natural world around them. While both say they feel a deep, almost spiritual, connection to nature through the farm, it’s not something they wanted to over-romanticize.
“Through this kind of work, you realize the challenges that are just inherent in growing things,” Spear says, like the weather, or invasive insects. “There’s a sense of the realities there as well as the inspiration.”
Riley says is was important to both her and Spear to provide a comprehensive account of blueberry farming. “The berries are ripe in July, but they have their year, and because we know that we wanted to share it,” she says. In addition to the 12 chapters, there are sections of the book dedicated to the histories of blueberry farming and farming on Cape Cod, as well as the history of Hokum Rock Farm, which Spear’s family started in 1973 on family land purchased in 1944. Also included is a wide-ranging list of the flora and fauna the couple has identified on the farm over the years, from wildflowers and insects to birds and animals like coyotes and deer. Plus, there are recipes for a number of tempting blueberry treats, including their signature blueberry buckle.
The photography throughout the book is a highlight, with all of the photos of the blueberry farm, with the exception of the historical photos, taken by Riley herself. “I think we had included over 500 photographs when we sent the finished draft to [Schiffer Publishing],” Riley says. “Her photos are just so beautiful, and they capture the place,” says Spear. “When you see that snapshot with the light just right… She’s just brought so much to the whole experience of the farm for me.”
For Spear and Riley, the experience of writing their first book, and seeing it in bookstores, has been a surreal dream come true. Riley says she has recently finished writing a children’s book that will be a companion piece to “Out in Blue Fields.” “The essence of the story for children is really at the heart of the adult story as well, which is it is a labor of love,” she says of blueberry farming.
So what is it about blueberries that they find so endearing? “Besides the fact that I like eating them,” Spear says, “I think they’re just such a beautiful plant—the fruit, the flowers, the stems in the winter.” “They are beautiful,” Riley affirms. Spear adds, “As I say in the book, when my stepfather and I cooked up this idea of trying to have a farm, he had a distant cousin that was a blueberry breeder, so we went to see his farm. It just captured me.”
And now Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm is capturing the hearts of those who’ve made a tradition of visiting every summer. “People have asked us if it’s a sanctuary,” Riley says, “and it isn’t in the official sense of the word, but it is.”
For more information and a schedule of the authors’ upcoming book events, visit hokumrockfarm.com.