Interview of Newton C. Robbins of Carlisle by Michael Collins on June 17, 2015. The interview focuses on Robbins early life, World War II experience, work in the State Police, aviation, and founding the Carlisle Crimestoppers.
E. K. Weitzel: Good morning, Lee. Today is October 29, 2014, and I am pleased to be talking to Dr. Lee Burcham from the Kiwanis Club of Carlisle, and today we will be discussing the history of the now famous blueberry sales that have started within the county, not only our Kiwanis club but other Kiwanis clubs, and how it all began since you are a founding father of that project. So do we have your permission, Dr. Burcham, to talk about this issue today?
Lee Burcham: Indeed.
EKW: All right, terrific. Would you please give us a little bit of the beginnings of this project, how it all started?
LB: All right. I had rejoined the Kiwanis Club about a year before this began, and all of the discussions in the club were about the financial failure of the club. We had no monetary assets coming in for the multi-charitable purposes we intended to spend the money on. I thought it over for a while because in my neighborhood I had been going over to New Jersey each year to get blueberries.
EKW: Just for the folks in your neighborhood?
LB: Yes, for the folks in my neighborhood, and I'd come back with maybe three hundred pounds, four hundred pounds, something like that, whatever my station wagon would hold. I was doing that because earlier we had been buying berries from a lady up in Newville, and for about three years we bought from her. She came around in her pickup truck, and she had blueberries from New Jersey.
EKW: What year, pray tell, was this?
LB: This was about '89, '90, '91, perhaps into '92, '93. Anyway, the blueberries stopped. She didn't deliver one year. I called her; she said, "Well my father-in-law and I couldn't make the trip this year, so we've stopped doing it. But here's the name of the dealer we've been working with in New Jersey. He'll be glad to give you some berries." That's when I started going over there perhaps in '93 or '94, and each year I'd get three hundred, four hundred pounds, bring it back in the station wagon, give it to my neighbors. Then so when I rejoined the Kiwanis Club, I heard all these dour forecasts of financial instability and dire consequences about to befall us. I said to Debbie Ryerson, who was our president, "How about selling some blueberries?" I got the forty-foot stare in the ten-foot room like, What are you talking about? I told her what I'd been doing for almost a decade, and I thought these were a salable item, and if we handled it right we could sell a lot of blueberries and make some money.
EKW: So Debbie was the president in 2002.
LB: Yes, in 2002 into 2003. Her presidency ran out October of 2003. So we had a caucus, and we decided, Well we'll give it a shot in the spring. We made preparations with the grower.
EKW: Was this Mr. Wheelan(??)?
LB: Pardon me?
EKW: Was this Jeff Wheelan(??), the grower in New Jersey?
EKW: Okay, because that's who we use today.
LB: Yes, he's one of the growers. I found out that when you deal with one grower, you're dealing with a whole bunch of growers over there because they have co-ops and working arrangements. Anyhow, Fred Dietrich(??) ran this particular Tru-Blu co-op at a little town there [undecipherable] north of Hammonton, New Jersey, about thirty(??) miles. So at the appropriate time when the berries were about to be ripe, he called me and said, "We'll be ready for you. When do you want to come?" So we put together a traveling venture; Cliff Yeager(??) and I drove over in my little Hyundai station wagon. Don Geistwhite(??) drove an Econoliner, which he had rented. We went over to the blueberry co-op and picked up three thousand pounds.
EKW: Which would be how many boxes?
LB: That'd be three hundred boxes.
EKW: Of ten pounds?
LB: Those are ten-pound boxes, yes.
EKW: Okay, three hundred boxes.
LB: I brought back forty in my little Hyundai station wagon, and Don Geistwhite(??) brought over 260 boxes. [00:05:20.08] So we got back, and when we left the co-op it started raining, and as we approached Carlisle it rained harder and harder and harder and harder. By the time we got here, it was an absolute torrent. Fortunately(??) we could back up into the offloading area of Project SHARE.
EKW: You were at Project SHARE then, as well?
LB: Yes, Project SHARE had volunteered their space for us.
EKW: So this was in 2002?
LB: No, this was 2003.
EKW: Three? Okay, three.
LB: Yes, 2003, in July of course. So we offloaded our berries and said, Now what do we do, because we hadn't done any advertising, we hadn't gotten any purchases in advance.
EKW: It was word of mouth through the club, though, wasn't it?
LB: That's it, through the club. "We're going to have blueberries for sale. Get ready to sell some."
EKW: What was the price?
LB: The price then as I recall was nineteen dollars a box, and we paid eleven for them, eleven dollars a box.
EKW: So you made eight dollars in profit.
LB: About eight dollars in profit there. It took us about two days to sell those berries, but we finally sold them to grocery stores, and restaurants and people who took them and said, Hey I know where I can get rid of these. They'd take five boxes or ten boxes. We got rid of the three thousand boxes, and we made a profit--I don't have the figures handy here--we made a profit of about twenty-five hundred dollars. Well that's more than they had gotten from anything in half a decade.
EKW: I'll bet, yes.
LB: The only thing that was contributing to them then was the rose sale. So that was the start of it. We said, Well now we know how to do this, and we know that we have to advertise in advance, and we have to do some preparations in advance that we didn't do. We had no retail experts in the club at the time; no one volunteered. So we then made our plans for the following year, and we said, Well let's go for forty-five hundred pounds, because I think we can expand on what we did. We got orders for six thousand pounds.
EKW: Ahead of time?
EKW: How did you get those ahead of time orders?
LB: We put an ad in the paper finally, and we did some flyers, posting them up here and there, in places out at Carlisle Barracks. People responded, and we had advance sales of six thousand pounds. From there it took off, and through the years then, I think--if I can be approximate here--our first year was 3,000 pounds, our second year was 6,000 pounds, the third year was 9,450, the fourth year was 12,050 or [12,060] thousand pounds. Then it went up to I think nineteen thousand, then it went to twenty-one thousand, and it was twenty-six thousand in 2010 as I recall. Then a new team took it over, and they experimented around, and they pushed it up about a thousand pounds a year. We're at about 30,000, 30,500 now. [00:08:52.03] So that was sort of the history of it, but in the process of doing this we said, You know, this is a very, very profitable thing. It was putting twenty thousand dollars into our coffers each year. So we said, We'll let some of the other Kiwanis clubs in central Pennsylvania in on this.
EKW: So they didn't come to you? You went to them?
LB: It was a little bit of both. Sometimes they heard we were selling blueberries and they called us. Other times we went to them and said, Would you like in on this?
EKW: Because of the truck, right? Because of the tractor trailer truck, you could put a whole bunch of blueberries in there and make one delivery.
LB: Yes, we have a single truck delivery to three or four destinations, I follow you. I think our first club was probably one of the York clubs--Chambersburg, I'm sorry, Chambersburg. Then Shippensburg came in, Dillsburg, Gettysburg, Hanover--
EKW: What about Newville?
LB: Newville came on very late. Newville is only in about its third year now, or fourth year, and it's a smaller amount of berries they take. But then churches in the area began to hear about this, as far away as Bedford. So my phone rang consistently over about a three year period, of people wanting to get into the act of selling blueberries, and this is funny to me because people in Bedford aren't going to be our customers and I could worry less about them. So I prepped all these people, sent them emails, told them, "This is what you need."
EKW: You sent them to blueberry school.
LB: Yes, blueberry school. You need a hand truck to move these things around because when they come, they're heavy. You need a refrigerated space because you're going to have these for twenty-four to thirty-six hours, and if they melt down they're no good, so you've got to keep them firm. We had churches in Harrisburg, churches in Bedford. State College then got in on it, and State College became very successful very quickly because they're a bigger place than Carlisle and Hanover and York and Chambersburg, so they're up around forty thousand pounds now. The churches gave me back emails and said, We didn't have the kind of experience you did, but we had a very successful one and we made three thousand dollars. That was big dollars to those folk. The idea of the blueberry sale spread, and we changed growers a couple times because of some problems that came up, but we ultimately came back to the same growers because it's one team. People who go over there and think they have confidence in talking to this grower about that grower, within seven minutes the other grower knows all the things you've been saying.
EKW: It's a close-knit community.
LB: So you get to talking to him, he knows who you are, what color your eyes are, the whole bit. That's sort of the nutshell of how we grew and how we did expand, and those associations are still hanging on today.
EKW: All the people that, in other words, contacted you over the years are still doing the blueberry sales?
LB: Oh yes, I don't know anyone who's dropped out. Even the churches that were involved, I've had contacts with two or three of them, and the churches are still doing it. They have a limited ability to expand, but they're still getting that three or four thousand dollars a year of profit come into their treasury. So I'd say it's a rousing success; it was just a product that was sitting there waiting to be sold, and I don't have any complaints about blueberries. We've had two or three--one instance, Glenn Cline(??) was with us, he had a customer he had sold some berries to, and the customer called him back and said, "My berries were all rotten." Glenn said, "Well gee, let me come over and take a look at them." He said, "Where'd you have these berries sitting? How long have they been out there?" He said, "Just two or three days." "Where'd you have them?" "Out in the garage." "Oh." Three days at ninety-five degrees, the berries are nothing, just slush. So they were rotten by that time.
EKW: What type of blueberries did the club buy? The name?
LB: Bluecrop is the main one, and the Duke is the second one. The only difference really is that the Duke comes on about ten days earlier, and if you get the late Duke's in the ten day period, you're about the same as any old blueberry as the early Bluecrops are.
EKW: And we use the Blues.
LB: We use the Bluecrops, and we get some Dukes depending on whether our sale is the tenth of July or whether it's the fifth of July.
EKW: We always try to avoid the Fourth of July weekend, so it's sometime after that.
LB: We did have one sale I think as late as the tenth or eleventh of July, but most of them have been the fifth, sixth, seventh of July, and we get the Bluecrops then. [00:14:32.18]
EKW: And these are picked, then, how many days before they're loaded up or boxed up and then taken in the truck and delivered to us?
LB: Normally these berries are picked the night before.
EKW: The night before?
LB: Oh yes. They pick right up until about two o'clock in the morning, and when the box then is filled at two o' clock in the morning--and by the way, one of these growers had 105 little Mexican pickers, immigrant pickers. They turned out and they go to work, and they bring in these forty pound lugs of berries every twenty or thirty minutes. [They] dump them out and they get sorted out and washed. So the procedure for handling the berries is very tight-knit in terms of time. They probably start picking about five o' clock in the evening; they pick around to two o' clock in the morning. They're all loaded on the refrigerated truck, and they get here about 5:30 or six in the morning, and there you are. They haven't been picked twenty-four hours when we get them. There isn't a grocery store in the area that can match that, not even GIANT. Anything you get from GIANT is probably three or four days old at the earliest.
EKW: And they come in ten-pound boxes?
LB: Yes, and that's anathema, really, to the blueberry people there. They don't deal in ten-pound boxes except--about three of the growers will do it.
EKW: Is there a problem from therein with that?
LB: Yes, there's a problem with it because all their machinery is set up to do pint boxes.
EKW: The little things you pay four dollars for in the store?
LB: Yes, and they run these boxes through at the speed of light. It's all mechanical, and they're filled, covered with plastic and put in boxes automatically. Nobody touches them. With a ten-pound box, they're manually filled, they're weighed, and they're set off to the side and put in there and say, "These are ten pounds." So it's a matter of appropriation of labor and how much time you want to spend filling ten-pound boxes. We've had very compassionate growers for the most part.
EKW: Do all the other people that copy this idea from the Carlisle Kiwanis Club, do they also use the ten-pound boxes?
LB: Yes, they all take ten-pound boxes.
EKW: This is something, then, that the growers have probably managed to do more economically because of the quantity of sales?
LB: I don't know, and when I say that we take--in the aggregate here, a truckload is eighty thousand pounds, more or less--that's just a--
EKW: Drop in the bucket?
LB: A drop in the bucket to what they harvested that day. They probably harvested twenty of those trucks full. The one grower we've been dealing with, he has one million plants in the ground that are berrying at any one time.
EKW: How much can one bush make?
LB: About forty pints.
EKW: Forty pints?
LB: Yes, a good mature bush will yield you about forty pints. That's a lot of blueberries, and we put a million of them, yielding forty pints--that's a whole lot of blueberries. We went there and looked at the blueberry farm, in particular the growing area. You stand here and as far as you can see in all directions were blueberry plants, five feet high, spaced about six foot centers. You can count them, there's a million plants, a million and one hundred thousand plants out there. That's just one grower.
EKW: You say there are co-ops, so five or ten all together?
LB: Twenty or thirty or forty, and a lot of the growers, when they have their crop picked, that's it. They don't know anything about what's going on. We went to a broker; the broker handled it, went to the wholesaler, and they got their money. They aren't even interested in talking to you about, "I want thirty thousand pounds." They say, "No, we don't have time for that."
EKW: Is this all they do, then, just grow blueberries? It's one crop a year?
LB: Well some of them. In fact the one we're dealing with now is going into cranberries too, but Ocean Spray bought every berry that he's going to grow for the next ten years.
EKW: Ten years?
LB: Yes, he doesn't have any spares because all of his berries go to Ocean Spray. He signed a ten-year contract. So blueberries and cranberries are compatible, although the cranberry needs a lot more water.
EKW: Yes, they're in bogs or something, aren't they?
LB: Yes, but you can build those bogs fairly cheaply and contain the water to keep the berries happy. The blueberries aren't inundated all the time. One question that always comes up [is], "Have these been sprayed?" The answer is yes, they've been sprayed, but before the blossoms were on the plants. They're sprayed before the blossoms come because once the blossoms come on, if you have the spray on there to kill insects you kill all the bees who are pollinating your plants. Characteristically what happens is that the people who are in this business bring in their eighty-thousand pound truck, a big sixteen-wheeler; it's full of beehives.
EKW: Oh, they bring the bees too.
LB: They set the beehives out in this one million plant patch and leave them there for a week or ten days, whatever it is. They pollinate their plants for them. They pick up the bees, and they always move slightly to the north. They start down in Georgia and North Carolina, and they gradually move northward, and they get up into [New] Jersey and Pennsylvania or simultaneously. Then they move up into Maine and southern Canada, and finally they get up into the far reaches of Canada--still southern Canada, Ontario--and then they collect their bees and they head south again. [00:21:24.14]
EKW: It's such an interesting story, how it all goes full circle.
LB: It is, really.
EKW: And then we all have these blueberries in our freezers and get them out every morning and put them in our yogurt or make whatever with them.
LB: They freeze very, very well. Probably nothing freezes better than them except the cherry. The sweet cherry will freeze very well. I ran across a box the other day, a one and a half-pound package that had a date on it of '11. So this was '14, it's three years, and I couldn't tell the difference in the berries. Now there's a time when it comes, maybe it's seven years or something like that, and that berry will begin to deteriorate, even under freezing conditions, but they keep very well.
EKW: The Carlisle community, how well have they responded to this Kiwanis project over the years?
LB: They've been quite responsive. Again, they account for our growth in the customer list. We maintained customer lists our early years; [it was] 150 people, something like that. We're now up to about twelve hundred people on the list, and there are the others who we don't even have the names of who drop by to get berries, because the attitude is now that if we have berries we'll sell them to whoever walks in the door and worry about not having enough when we get to that point. So far they've been lucky.
EKW: On the other hand, too, there are people who say they will buy the berries and then they don't because we don't get the money up front, right?
LB: That's true.
EKW: They come and they're supposed to pick up and pay, and then they don't come and pick up, so we have boxes left over.
LB: That's right. Normally that runs about 5 percent; about 5 percent of people don't show up to pick up the berries, and it varies up to 10 percent. We've had as much as 10 percent that didn't come. Out of 1,200 people, that means 120 people didn't show up, and the average is almost two boxes per customer. That's 240 boxes; you've got a quarter of a ton there that you have left over.
EKW: Yes, and almost two pallets(??).
LB: So it's something you have to keep your hand on, control in terms of customers not showing up. We've thought about taking money up front. Two or three of the clubs do, and the churches out in western Pennsylvania take prepaid. They can't afford to have any losses. So many times we've gotten on the list at the very final moment of the sale and started calling people who haven't shown up. They say, Oh god, I forgot all about that, I'll be down there, when do you close, yak yak yak yak yak. So here they come along about two o' clock, 2:30, and they're getting their berries, they forgot all about them. Then, believe it or not, I get calls two or three days later saying, Do you still have any berries? I forgot to come. "Yes, we've got about ten boxes. If you come down to Project SHARE, I'll give them to you." When will you be there? "Right now." They come. [00:24:50.11]
EKW: Tell us about the relationship with Kiwanis Club and Project SHARE over the years.
LB: Sure. Kiwanis Club has sponsored Project SHARE in terms of some dollars they give each year.
EKW: Oh, so they're part of our charitable giving.
LB: Yes. We have given funds to Project SHARE for their purposes. Project SHARE, of course, is in the food pantry business and dispenses a lot of foodstuffs to the people in the Cumberland County area. So we have a good relationship there. Two or three of the people have volunteered, like Jim Boytim(??) I know, have volunteered when the people come to pick up their groceries periodically. I don't know how often that happens; I think it's four or five times a month, and people come in to get foodstuffs from Project SHARE. Jim, I know, and some of the others have been there to help dispense those items. So it's been a good relationship, and we try to be in there at five o' clock one morning and gone no later than about noon the next day, clean up the area and turn it back over to Project SHARE as was without messing up anything.
EKW: Then we have two days of deliveries, so to speak. The first day is the Kiwanis people, in fact, sell the berries to folks and then deliver them. Is that not true?
LB: That's true. We were set up that you have a total list of customers. Some of those customers have been developed by the Kiwanians themselves. For instance, Fred Rouge(??) used to have fifty-five, sixty customers; he'd take those boxes to them, deliver them to them, which he can't do anymore. On the other hand we have people, then, who have called in and said, I need some blueberries. "How many boxes do you want? You want three? Are you down for three boxes?" You pick up the three boxes on the second day. The first day, we dispense to the Kiwanians for their own sales, and then you get that over between six in the morning and about one o' clock.
EKW: How much of the total sales does that usually encompass?
LB: It's been running about fifty-fifty.
EKW: Half of them? Okay.
LB: Now this last year, I think the last two years, it was running more like forty to forty-five by Kiwanians and fifty to fifty-five to sixty to the public. I don't know if that means the Kiwanians are getting older and they can't deliver them or what. It could something as simple as that. Some of those people are now picking up berries themselves which used to be delivered to them. It isn't necessarily a shift in who's buying the berries. It's the same people but they're buying them in a different way. This last year I think they failed to deliver any berries to Carlisle Barracks, and that cost them about fifty boxes, but that's their decision-making process.
EKW: I know the Kiwanis Club gives back to the community. Children are our mission, and so the money that we make from the blueberry sales goes back to the Carlisle community.
LB: Yes, there's a number of programs like the one that Barrie Ann George administers, the one Carol Lawrence has with Warm the Children, and there's a couple more that are--one of the programs that's missing that probably should be there is to ferret out those children in Cumberland County who are undernourished and under-clothed, under-housed and need help, and we haven't identified those yet. There are probably five hundred to a thousand of them in the county that need help. [00:29:08.13]
EKW: Through the years, you're saying starting in 2003, then--
EKW: --and continuing to this day, the blueberry sales with the Carlisle Kiwanis club looks to be a money-maker.
LB: It's a money-maker and it's, of course, a surpriser because there was a lot of resistance to it the first year or two. Then they all decided to get on the bandwagon, it looks like it's going to go.
EKW: About how many volunteers does it take from the club to make this happen?
LB: About twenty, it takes about twenty people. Getting the orders taken ties up about five people, whether those orders are taken by telephone or by the dedicated telephone which is an automated line we have. They can call in 243-6800, I think it is, and give us their order, and that phone line is cleaned out each day of the sale. And we get a lot of personal phone calls. It was interesting to me this year [in] which I wasn't even on the committee, and yet I'd logged forty-two telephone calls at my home for berries.
EKW: Well they know you're Mr. Blueberry in Carlisle, and that's why, Lee. Come on.
LB: They knew that I had something to do with it for a while.
EKW: Is there anything else you think that is noteworthy that you would like to mention in this video recording?
LB: I want to say that in the aggregate now, since our efforts have expanded up through South Central Pennsylvania--just to reiterate, we do have clubs with Hanover and York, and we have Gettysburg and Dillsburg on that side of the river. We have the two Chambersburg clubs, Shippensburg, Newville and Carlisle, I don't even know if they've been out there. I can't think of another one right now. Anyway, those clubs are all making quite a bit of money, and it's more money than they've seen consistently each year in a long time. Even the rose sales, which haven't done that well recently for some reason, never generated those kinds of dollars. We're still trying to keep about a ten dollar a box profit. The cost was eleven dollars I think to start with, and now it's twenty-three dollars a box. So we're still making about nine to ten dollars a box.
EKW: Last year I think the sales were thirty-one dollars a box.
LB: I think they paid twenty-one this last year.
EKW: Some of the other clubs were selling them for thirty.
LB: Yes, so each club head can sell it for whatever they want to. I got out of that business very early. I said, "All I'm going to do is tell you about how you can do it, and then you do it with your numbers. I don't want to be a coordinator on this or anything like that, because you get in deep kimchi very quickly."
EKW: Alright, anything else? Any final closing remarks, Dr. Burcham?
LB: No, I think I'm fine with that. I think it'll spread the word.
EKW: Okay, well thank you very, very much for your time this morning.
LB: You bet.
EKW: We certainly do appreciate it. [00:33:00.00]