Blueberries are a true Northern fruit, requiring cool winter temperatures to get the dormant rest they need. However, the crop is a growing segment of farming in Florida. Blueberry production is expanding in the Sunshine State in spite of a short, targeted harvest season, water challenges and the avian scourge of cedar waxwings.

In 2001, after years spent working in public radio and with her children grown, Maryann Stein was ready for something new just as the blueberry industry kicked off in the state. She planted three acres of blueberries in the middle of 80 acres she purchased in Hernando County, north of Tampa Bay, Florida, and Brooksville Ridge Blueberries was born.

“There was not that many people doing that at the time,” Stein noted. Developing varieties for Southern growers, the University of Florida in Gainesville was breeding blueberries that needed fewer chill hours under 40 degrees to harden off the plants. Dr. Paul Lyrene, world-renowned plant breeder, is considered the father of Florida blueberries.

From left, mechanic Bill Hardy, owner Maryann Stein and manager Emmitt Jones.

The land-grant university plant breeders were motivated to create blueberry bushes that would produce ripe fruit for April sales. There’s a small window of marketing opportunity from late March to early May for Florida blueberry growers to own the fresh market in North America. The winter crop from Chile ends, and there is a gap before the Georgia blueberry crop comes in and flattens the wholesale price.

At Brooksville Ridge, blueberries are picked starting at the end of March or early April until early May. At that time, the Georgia crop is in and the berry pickers leave Florida, no matter how many blueberries are left. The farm offers two weekends of pick-your-own blueberries to the public to finish the crop in May.

When a freeze threatens crops, growers are using a lot of water all at once. The water pumps run until the freeze event is over, stressing aquifers. Some Florida growers are using both wind and water to protect their blueberries, with water as a backup for freeze events when wind machines are not adequate.

Learning curve

Stein was learning everything at once: fruit agriculture, mechanics, soil and irrigation. She said, “I took what I learned and planted another seven acres, and then a second planting.” She expanded about every two years, and the original 80 acres at Brooksville Ridge is now fully planted, as well as 12 acres at a nearby 27-acre plot Stein recently purchased.

The farm sells about 500,000 pounds of blueberries a year. Of the eight varieties planted at the farm, Jewel and Emerald are the workhorse varieties for the Southern grower, and Primadonna is considered the tastiest.

Stein said, “Primadonna is called that for a reason. A delicious berry, everyone’s favorite, but you never know what to expect … It’s liable to be late, have crop burn, [it’s] very fickle.”

An Oxbo 8000 mechanical harvester has been used for the last two years, in addition to a picking crew, mostly for late-season cleanup. “The University of Florida is also working on developing new varieties for machine harvest, and I have two of them planted in my field now. They are called Meadowlark and Farthing,” Stein noted.

The blueberry farm sprays for spotted wing drosophila as needed, monitors for thrips, and fights cedar waxwings for every berry. Like many growers, they have used every tactic imaginable to scare the birds away, including cannons, bird bangers and hawks. Constantly flying four drones to cover 80 acres seems to be the only way to keep the cedar waxwings moving.

Staff member Hugo straps in a load of blueberries for safety.

Water challenges

Stein advised those looking into starting blueberry farming in Florida to make sure they have an adequate water supply. Growers must meet the criteria set by the local water districts, which issue water use permits.

Stein said the first thing to consider is whether or not you have enough water for freeze protection. “We have to have water for a freeze event,” she said, noting that they use the method a lot to protect the fruit.

The irrigation system at Brooksville Ridge was overhauled for freeze protection, and a pond was built to collect runoff from the irrigation. By participating in a program connected to the local water management district, Stein was also able to install double drip irrigation at the farm.

Eric Blough, Maryann Stein’s nephew, pulling the pick-your-own train.

The Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems (FARMS) program develops water-saving projects with farmers on a cost-share basis. Carole Estes, a FARMS project manager out of Sarasota, Florida, explained the intense water demands that farms face in a freeze event. “Fruit farms, especially strawberries, are concentrated in a geographic area from Tampa to Lakeland [Florida]. When a freeze threatens crops, growers are using a lot of water all at once. The water pumps run until the freeze event is over, stressing aquifers. In some areas, sinkholes have developed where groundwater depletion causes surface land to collapse.”

The project at Brooksville Ridge is a typical FARMS project, building a pond to collect irrigation runoff and installing pipes and pumps to make it happen. Stein described the project as “wonderful,” with high marks for the planning and expertise provided.

Maryann Stein’s daughter, Gigi, monitors the pickyour- own table

Water permits and conservation

Estes, who is also a geologist specializing in groundwater hydrology, explained that someone who wants to farm in Florida needs a permit from one of Florida’s five water management districts. She said, “The way it works in the state of Florida, you get permits to use a certain amount of water for your needs.” For example, for a 40-acre blueberry farm, there’s a formula for crop needs, location, soil type, climate, etc., to come up with water supply numbers. Some areas with threatened aquifers cannot allow new water permits, especially coastal areas experiencing saltwater intrusion into groundwater wells.

When Estes was asked if her water district has seen more blueberry farms get started in recent years, she responded, “Absolutely. Seven or eight years ago we started to see blueberry farms develop, and it’s interesting to see blueberries flourish here.”

FARMS water projects are approved for cost sharing at 50 percent and 75 percent. The most critical water areas are more likely to qualify for the larger cost share.

Maryann Stein brings in a load of fruit.

A few blueberry growers are successfully using wind machines to fight freezing temperatures. Researchers want to know if using wind machines can cut back on water use. When there are temperature inversions, warm air aloft can be mixed with cold surface air to protect plants and blossoms. Wind machines are used more frequently in California than in Florida. Some Florida growers are using both methods, with water as a backup for freeze events when wind machines are not adequate.

At Brooksville Ridge, blueberries are picked starting at the end of March or early April until early May.

Florida goes blue

Stein gives credit to her employees, especially Bill Hardy, mechanic, and Emmitt Jones, farm manager at Brooksville Ridge. “Bill has been very creative in adapting farm equipment to meet our particular needs, and Emmitt keeps our field crew moving in the right direction. They both have a great sense of humor and it is a pleasure working with them.”

A group of happy pick-your-own customers at Brooksville Ridge Blueberries.

Her family also pitches in; her daughter, Gigi, and son, William, help out for the pick-your-own weekends in May, and Stein’s nephew, Eric Blough, fills in here and there. Stein said, “We can do two really bang-up weekends if the weather is right.”

In April, the Brooksville Ridge Blueberry Festival celebrates the little blueberry that has migrated south to Florida, like a lot of Northerners.

Weighing berries at Brooksville Ridge Blueberries.

Tina Wright is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, New York, specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.