Tikkanen Berry Farm in Sterling, CT
47 Kennedy Road
Foster, RI 02825
Pre-picked blueberries often available at roadside stand
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Sterling, CT - Tucked away on a country road that snakes and curves back and forth across the Connecticut/Rhode Island state line, Ray Tikkanen’s berry farm lies in a little valley crossed by a trickling brook. He’s been farming here since 1946, when he returned from the Pacific and his uncle offered to help set him up raising laying hens on his farm. Ray stayed in egg production until 1970, when he “saw the writing on on wall” in US farm policy and how the poultry business was driving egg producers to go into cage plants in order to survive. The industry was consolidating, and producers were dependant on middlemen who bought their eggs at a price of his choosing, and resold them for a profit. Since he didn’t see much of a future in eggs, he reckoned he had two choices: leave farming to work at Pratt and Whitney, or convert the farm to something else.
And convert he did. Beginning with a few dozen berry bushes he saw advertised in the newspaper, he replaced hen houses with greenery on the farm he had since inherited from his uncle. He laughs now at the recollection of trying to plow those first swathes destined to become rows of blueberry bushes. He started his tractor our from one point, aiming for where his daughter stood with a tall pole, marking his destination. That was supposed to make a straight row, but somehow they all ended up bowed in the middle… a quirk he now jokingly blames on earthquakes.
On a steamy summer day around noontime, a steady trickle of customers pass through the farm, stopping in at the weathered white way-station in the first field to get their containers weighed in before picking by one of the neighbor’s children working there as a summer job. They do have pails with shoulder straps to pick into, but you should bring a tray, box, bowl, or cookpot to transport your treats home. Retired men and young mothers and children pluck berries off the bushes by the handfull, filling up their baskets in minutes before meandering back to the shack to weigh in, pay up, and perhaps catch up with Ray a little bit. Ray says he gets lots of families with kids – nodding in the direction of a family piling out of a minivan beside us, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the mother came her herself as a kid.
Far fewer people seem interested in the profusion of red currants he grows, so his daughter made up a recipe sheet to entice customers into trying them out. They are a recent addition, along with the black currant; he and his late wife, who was Estonian, thought they’d add some more variety to the farm, but it’s slow going to get people to try them out. A friend who keeps bees on the property also chipped in to help – his wife is English, and she gave the Tikkanens a collection family black currant recipes that will soon be free for the taking as well.
Blueberries are clearly his specialty – he has about a dozen varieties, to keep the farm in supply from July into the fall, once even into mid-October! The year of 2006 is a very good year for his crop, and he is seeing some serious pruning he did last year really pay off in abundant fruit production. Ray has done a lot of replanting in the strawberry fields, which also contain several varieties to stretch the season and provide both the jumbo berries most people prefer and the tiny, intensely sweet and flavorful berries best suited for jam (or eating fresh for the patient berry-picker who’s in the know!) Ray is particularly aware of the flavor differences in his chosen varieties, and it’s worth asking him for his recommendation if he’s around during your visit. Luckily for me, I mentioned I already had some berries from a particualr patch back home, but wanted to renew my supply. “You should try the Spartans, over by that cone,” he pointed off to a hidden corner of the field. “There aren’t many bushes, but they are enormous, and sweet.” They pretty much jumped into my boxes by themselves. Those that didn’t go into my mouth, that is – though I tried to restrain myself until I got them to the car before I let myself really tuck in.