Hard work and long hours are nothing new for Robert Ward of Blue Pearl Farms. For more than five years, he and his wife, Cheri Ward, have overseen all operations at the spacious farm in McClellanville, from raising and harvesting blueberries to handling bees and raw honey.
They’ve even added the task of fishing for local crabs into their busy schedule. But the Wards have always made time for hosting guests at special festivities at their bucolic, rural setting up in the northeast corner of Charleston County.
This Sunday, the Wards and their volunteer staff will host the fifth annual “Bluesberry” Jam and Lowcountry Blueberry Festival at Blue Pearl Farms, located just a bit north of McClellanville’s Old Village, on the southern edge of the Francis Marion National Forest.
Since 2011, the Wards have made a habit of inviting various local and regional bands and singer-songwriters to provide live entertainment for small events and large-scale festivals at the farm.
Many of their earliest efforts drew surprisingly big crowds, and their informal jam sessions and get-togethers quickly evolved into a serious monthly series of concerts and events.
“It became a big thing with a lot of support from some great musicians and music fans,” says Robert Ward, taking a break from a recent flurry of activity in his blueberry fields. “Cheri and I love music, and we’ve had a great time having bands and music lovers come out to this family-friendly atmosphere to enjoy performances over the years.”
Since buying and establishing Blue Pearl Farms in the late 2000s, the Wards have mainly concentrated on growing and selling large-size, handpicked blueberries and blueberry-based sauces and compotes. With more than 3,000 plants on hand, the late-spring and summer blueberry season is a particularly busy time. The Wards and their crew race to harvest ripe berries and distribute them to markets around the Charleston area.
Increasingly, the couple has also delved into the vocation of beekeeping, adding honey and beeswax to their list of wares.
“We’ve continually tried new things and focused on what works best,” Ward says. “We’ve fine-tuned a few things, and we’ve diversified as well.”
The Wards dedicate considerable time and effort to expanding their apiary (bee yard) and selling queen bees, nucleus hives, pure beeswax candles and several varieties of raw honey. They also teach introductory and advanced beekeeping to groups and individuals.
“One thing I’m proud of with our bees is that we are chemical free,” Ward says. “We don’t get sprayed for mosquitoes by the county officials in this area, so it’s a very clean environment for the bees. What they forage on is reflected in the honey they make.”
During the spring and summer months, the Wards regularly offer Blue Pearl Farms honey and blueberry products at the weekly Charleston and Mount Pleasant farmers markets at Marion Square and at Moultrie Middle School, respectively.
One of the most popular activities at Blue Pearl’s booths and festivals is the Blueberry Toss in which one player tosses a blueberry to another player who attempts to catch it in their mouth. The current “world record” is 43 feet, 6 inches.
Cultivating fruit and honey aren’t the only major tasks for the Wards these days. In 2012, the couple invested in a customized, 30-foot fiberglass mud boat, bought 120 crab pots, and kicked off a commercial side project. Over the last year, they’ve fished for local blue crabs between October and May, offering the catch to local seafood vendors around the Lowcountry.
“We started pulling crab pots in the wintertime about three years ago,” Ward says. “We’ve always fished for fun, but we’ve enjoyed going for blue crabs in the off-season when there wasn’t much going on at the farm. It’s hard work, and it can get pretty cold on the water, but there’s nothing like working in that unbelievable Cape Romaine area, along the marshes and the deep holes by the barrier island.”
The annual “Bluesberry” Jam is Blue Pearl Farm’s biggest harvest festival. Over the last five years, the Wards have booked a strong variety of acts specializing in traditional and modern blues, roots music, reggae and classic rock ’n’ roll.
“We had such a great time with the first few shows and got such a positive reaction from the musicians and attendees, we decided to host events every month for a while,” Ward says. “Sometimes, people look shocked when they showed up, saying ‘We didn’t even know McClellanville existed, much less had a music festival going on.’ ”
“We’ve hosted 14 bands at one of these before, but we’ve paired it down a bit over the last couple of years,” he adds. “You know, the Charleston music scene just rocks, and there are a lot of bands and musicians who really don’t get enough attention, so we try to include up-and-comers along with touring acts and well-established local bands. I think we have a great lineup this weekend.”
Ward used to dabble in performing live music himself, handling the harmonica and guitar. His love for traditional blues, folk, roots, and rock is usually reflected in the roster of bands he books for each festival and jam session at the farm.
Some of the stand-out performers who’ve played Blue Pearl Farms include blues guitarist Steve Hardy, singer/harmonica player Andy “Smoky” Weiner, folk-rocker Danielle Howle and blues-rock trio Tommy Thunderfoot and the Accelerators, and jam-rock combo the Reckoning, among many others.
“Overall, the gigs and festivals here have really evolved into a blues jam-type thing,” Ward says. “It’s a genuinely blues-based event nowadays. Everybody has the blues at least some time each year, so everyone can relate, you know?”
At this year’s Lowcountry “Bluesberry” Jam and Blueberry Festival, veteran harp man Larry Scott Dixon, aka “Dr. Dixon, Bh.D, The Blues Physician,” will be the featured act of the day. Dixon grew up in Georgia listening to various types of blues and soul music during the Blues Revival of the 1960s and early ’70s. Born and bred in the Atlanta area, he mastered the harmonica early on. He’s jammed and collaborated with an impressive variety of blues greats over the years, including Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and B.B. King.
Billed as Dr. Dixon and the Operators, Dixon and company will perform several sets between 2-5 p.m. Sunday with the backing of three Lowcountry musicians: electric guitarist Nik “Nature Boy Nik” Pappas, drummer Steve Kent on drums and bassist Dave Cooper.
“I thought that Dr. Dixon’s title ‘Bh.D.’ refers to his status as the ‘blues physician,’ but some claim that it stands for ‘By His Design.’ He’s a great player and a terrific featured act,” Ward says. “Like a lot of our previous performances on the stage by Cypress Pond, it’ll have an open feel to it.”
Local singer/guitarist/keyboardist Jig Wiggler (aka Greg Winkler of the Jefferson Coker Band) will open the festival with a “one-man band” set from noon to 1:30 p.m.
A newly formed blues/soul combo called High Gravity, which features drummer/bassist John Picard, guitarist “Silent Eddie” Phillips, bassist JoJo Wall, and guests, will close the evening with two sets from 5-7 p.m.
“All of these musicians will have folks dancing and movin’ around this weekend,” Ward adds. “A lot of the local cats have been out here for shows before, and they love the atmosphere and feel of the place. There’s always a lot of support going both ways, between the musicians and the folks at the farm.”
Fun live music will be just one of several treats at this year’s festival. Attendees will be able to pick their own blueberries in the fields (a prize will go the “biggest blueberry” picked during the day). In honor of Father’s Day, dads with their kids will receive a free cup of fresh blueberries upon entry.
Local artists, farmers, and craftsmen will be on hand with their wares, offering demonstrations, lessons, and information. Additional activities include raw honey tastings, kids games, and workshops conducted by a Sea Turtle Team from the nearby Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
Blue Pearl Farms will donate a portion of the proceeds from the festival to support Friends of Coastal South Carolina, www.sccoastalfriends.org, and their loggerhead sea turtle conservation and preservation efforts along the beaches of Cape Romaine and the Lowcountry.