FRANKFORT — Drivers who turn off of M-115 in Frankfort for Walton Orchard’s blueberry patch are likely to encounter Mike “Bubba” Smith out picking berries or selling them in the barn.
It’s Smith’s first season at the orchard since he was paralyzed from the chest down in a July 2017 ATV accident that killed his passenger, a neighbor.
“I got stupid with my side-by-side and got paralyzed,” said Smith, 56. “I was being goofy, doing a doughnut where I shouldn’t have been, on my own property, and tipped ‘er.”
After a month and a half of recovery at Munson Medical Center and six months of rehabilitation at hospitals in Grand Rapids and Chicago, Smith came back home to Frankfort to try and take up where he left off.
“It’s a new lifestyle and you just have to adjust,” he said. “Life goes on ... “
Now Smith picks blueberries from the seat of an electric wheelchair, reaching as far up the 3- to 5-foot bushes as he’s able.
The quarter-acre blueberry patch was planted in 1980 and includes several varieties of the fruit.
“These bushes are 40 years and they show no signs of letting up,” he said.
Smith said picking blueberries is hard work no matter how you approach it.
“No doubt about it,” he said. “They’re not very big and it takes a lot to fill a jug. And, of course, I can only pick with one arm because I have to hold the box with the other.”
Then there’s the temptation of the fruit itself.
“Some go in the box, some go in the mouth,” he said.
Still, Smith said he likes the work and being outdoors.
“It gets me out of the town and it’s something to do,” he said.
Smith began working in the orchard after meeting current owner Jeff Walton at a Superbowl party at Walton’s house. Walton’s dad owned the orchard and recruited Smith for part-time pruning and picking work.
“As soon as I got out of (my day job) in construction work, I’d come here and work in the orchard. And he gave me a place to stay,” Smith said.
Now Smith lives in a Frankfort apartment and works six days a week during blueberry season, from early August to mid-September. Besides picking berries, he transfers them from 10-pound boxes into pint containers and sells them in the orchard barn. The berries sell for $4 per pint; U-pick berries are $3 per pound.
Walton admires Smith’s strength and said his friend gets lots of help from others, including a driver who transports Smith to work and back in Smith’s handicap-accessible van.
“For the position that he’s in, he has an unbelievable attitude,” Walton said. “One day I said, ‘There’s not much out there. If you don’t want to come, it’s OK, and he said, ‘No, I want to come.’ He’s a good man.”
“I got stupid with my side-by-side and got paralyzed. I was being goofy, doing a doughnut where I shouldn’t have been, on my own property, and tipped ‘er.” Mike Smith