HAWTHORNE, Fla. (AP) - When you think of Florida fruit, oranges,
grapefruit and strawberries come to mind. But blueberries?
Hundreds of small blueberry farms have opened in the Sunshine
State in the past three decades, and blueberry production has
increased more than tenfold in the past decade. The farmers hope to
capitalize on their climate by providing fresh blueberries when
their competitors in the North can't. Florida produces only a
fraction of the blueberries that industry leader Michigan does, but
from mid-March to mid-April, its farmers dominate the market.
"It's just unbelievable how this thing has changed," said Ken
Patterson, who owns the Island Grove Farm, one of Florida's oldest
blueberry farms. "Twenty years ago, when we held a Florida
Blueberry Growers Association meeting we'd have 40 to 50 people at
a good meeting. In November, we expect 400 people there."
Patterson, who was once a funeral director, has more than 150
acres filled with 6-foot-tall blueberry bushes in Hawthorne and
nearly 200 acres of blueberries some 200 miles south in Arcadia.
There are so many blueberry farms in the area just east of
Gainesville that Patterson and other growers opened a
27,000-square-foot packing and distribution plant last year.
Their bushes will begin to bloom in January, and the fruit will
be harvested by hand a couple of months later. Their harvest, from
mid-March to mid-April, comes in a short, yet important, window for
grocery stores, which strive to keep fresh blueberries on their
shelves year-round. Russ Benblatt, executive marketing coordinator
for Whole Foods, wrote in an email that the arrangement benefits
farmers, grocers and consumers.
"This way, those sweet Florida berries can be enjoyed by our
customers around the country before the season starts elsewhere,"
he said. "And the relationship is reciprocal; when the Florida
season ends, we know that our global buyers are working with teams
in other regions to make sure that berries from around the country
can be enjoyed here in the summer when very little can grow in the
intense Florida heat."
Florida's strawberry and tomato growers have used a similar
growing season to briefly dominate the market by shipping fresh
produce nationwide when most U.S. farms are dormant. Blueberries
remain a much smaller crop for Florida farmers - worth $47 million
last year compared to the $362 million produced in strawberries,
according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture - but it's growing.
"From everything that I've seen consumer demand just continues
to go up and up," said Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida
Fruit and Vegetable Association.
Farmers like Patterson say demand for blueberries has grown
along with attention to its health benefits. Nutritionists say all
fruits and vegetables are good for you, and some studies suggest
blueberries are particularly beneficial.
Wild blueberries grew in Florida before Native Americans settled
there, and the first commercial blueberry plantations in the U.S.
were likely established in there in the late 1800s, said Paul
Lyrene, a horticulture professor at the University of Florida. The
industry declined in the 1920s when customers in northern states
stopped buying the blueberries that they considered low in quality.
"Florida blueberries soon earned the reputation of being small,
gritty-fleshed and lacking in flavor," Lyrene wrote in a
scientific journal. Sales continued to drop during the Depression
in the 1930s.
Fifty years later, University of Florida researchers began
developing Florida-friendly varieties of highbush berries, the term
generally used for cultivated blueberries. Wild berries, like those
common in Maine, are called lowbush.
The new varieties were sweeter, tastier and more consistent in
size than the berries produced earlier in Florida, Lyrene said.
They were hardier - which meant easier shipping, and most
importantly, they could withstand warm weather.
By 2000, Florida farmers saw a way to diversify and take
advantage of consumer demand - although they don't ever expect to
rival the big growers in Michigan, Maine and New Jersey.
Blueberries are expensive to grow, costing about $20,000 an acre
to plant. And, Florida varieties produce only 4 to 5 pounds of
berries per bush, while Northern bushes can yield up to 20 pounds
Still, the season gives Florida farmers an advantage by limiting
their competition, and they sell all their fruit fresh - which
commands a higher price than berries sold to be frozen or processed
into juice or other foods. Dole Food Co., the world's largest
producer and marketer of fresh fruit, saw enough of an opportunity
there that it announced last month it was buying Florida-based
Sunny Ridge Farm, one of the nation's largest fresh blueberry
Florida farmers' biggest competition comes from overseas,
particularly Chile. The U.S. imported more than 156 million pounds
of fresh blueberries last year; nearly half were from Chile. In
comparison, Florida will harvest about 20 million pounds this
But Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Grower's
Association, said he's confident because Florida blueberries are
"Look at the label," said Braswell, a former Delta airline
pilot who now raises blueberries in central Florida. "Instead of
getting a 4-week-old blueberry, you're getting a 3-day-old
blueberry from Florida."
Braswell's latest project is an indicator of his peers' success:
The first Florida Blueberry Festival will be held in May.