07/10/05 — He's found new thrills ...

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He's found new thrills ...

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on July 10, 2005 2:00 AM

When former state Sen. Henson Barnes retired from his Goldsboro law firm a decade ago, he intended to spend the rest of his days admiring the view from his home on White Lake.

That lasted about four days.

"Well, I sat here and looked at the water, then I rode my boat around the lake about 12 times," he says now with a grin. "Then I knew it was time to do something else."

So he decided to buy a 25-acre blueberry farm from an uncle. Growing blueberries wasn't something Barnes knew a lot about personally, but he figured he would learn.

"In Bladen County, if you're in blueberries, you're either a Barnes or kin to a Barnes," he says.

Leaning back in the front seat of his white pick-up truck, Barnes takes a swallow from his bottle of Mountain Dew before telling the story of the Barnes family and blueberries.

He says it began in the 1930s when a New Jersey family moved to Bladen County.

"They wanted to extend their season so they came down here," Barnes explains. "But they were close-mouthed about their blueberry growing because they didn't want any competition."

When winter came, the New Jersey transplants pruned their blueberry bushes and hauled the cuttings to the end of the road.

"They left them there until they were dry, then they'd burn them so no one could take a cutting," Barnes said. "If you take a cutting, put it in sawdust and put water on it ... well, you'll have you some blueberries."

That afternoon, some of Barnes' ancestors rode past the field and saw the prunings that had been pulled out to dry.

"And they continued riding by, as they should," Barnes said.

But, for some inexplicable reason, they found themselves back at the field that night.

"There they were in their truck with the lights off, and somehow that truck got filled full of those useless cuttings," Barnes said.

And somehow those cuttings found themselves in sawdust, with plenty of water throughout the winter. The following spring, the Barnes family was ready to plant a field of blueberries.

"It was a miracle," Barnes says with a grin.

Since that day, there has always been some member of the Bladen County Barnes family growing blueberries.

As Barnes puts it, "I've got blueberries in my blood, but I'm not a blueblood."

Far from it.

He grew up just four miles from White Lake, in rural Bladen County. His father, a farmer and part-time Baptist preacher, taught Barnes and his 10 siblings the value of hard work.

"My father farmed tobacco, corn and beans," Barnes says. "We didn't get to go to the lake much, but when I went I thought that those (were) the luckiest people in the world. They could go right outside their house and jump in the water."

After being the first in his family to graduate both high school and college, Barnes set up his law practice in Goldsboro in the early 1960s. About 15 years later, he was elected to the N.C. Senate, eventually becoming president pro-tem and one of the state's most influential legislators.

He gave that seat up in the early 1990s and retired from law in 1996.

"I always said I was going to be a lawyer for 35 years and then quit, but nobody believed me," Barnes says.

But a life of complete idleness didn't appeal to the retired statesman for long, so he yielded to his love of the land.

"Well, I was either going to go back to Goldsboro and practice law or buy a blueberry farm," he says. "And I did know something about blueberries, so I decided to buy the farm."

Those 25 acres he bought in 1997 have spread into 265 acres of blueberries, which take continuous work throughout the year.

"When you're not picking the berries off the bush, you're pruning it, or keeping the grass out of it," he says.

The farm originally grew only Croatan, an older, soft berry, classified as a high bush.

He now has six varieties of berries, which include both high bush and rabbit-eye berries. The high bush berry is usually a sweeter berry, he explains, while the rabbit-eye is firmer and usually a bit more tart.

"High bushes are actually shorter than the rabbit-eyes," he says. "And North Carolina is as far south as you can grow certain high bush varieties and as far north as you can grow some rabbit-eyes."

North Carolina ranks fourth in the nation for blueberry production, and a third of all the state's blueberries are grown in Bladen County.

All in all, he says, the New Jersey farmers knew what they were doing when they brought blueberries to Bladen County.

"My goal is to be able to pick all of them with a machine," he says. "The neighbors say it's impossible, but I'm getting closer because two-thirds of them are now picked by machine."

After riding through two miles of dirt paths, surrounded by rows of blueberry bushes, Barnes reaches his packing shed.

It's here where the blueberries are sorted through a computer-assisted assembly line.

Although there are no magical little men packing the boxes, two of Barnes's machines seem to have come right out of the pages of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

He has a color sorter, which recognizes the difference between a blue and a green berry. "It shoots the green berries out," Barnes says.

The second machine, from New Zealand, is the only one of its kind in the state. "It's a soft fruit ejector, and it can tell when the berries are too soft," Barnes says.

He's modest about his accomplishments, even his most recent: He was inducted last month into North Carolina Bar Association's Hall of Fame.

Although he claims to be a better lawyer than blueberry farmer, he has increased his production from less than 100,000 pounds in 1997 to 1.2 million pounds in 2004.

"Well, even a blind pig picks up some corn on occasion," he says, shrugging.

After a full day at the berry farm, Barnes heads up the highway to his house on White Lake. Two white rocking chairs sit at the end of the pier behind his house. One is for Barnes and one is for Kitty, his wife of 43 years.

Surrounded by the shade of cypress trees, Barnes looks across the clear water of the lake.

"Aren't I the luckiest man in the world?" he asks.