North Central Florida blueberry farmers thrive through challenges
From the plant to your mouth, blueberry season is here! But it doesn't last long. Florida is known for it farming, but what are some of the challenges local farmers are facing? CBS4 Reporter Brooke Rayford dissects the blueberry inside and out from "U-Pick Lane", one of Levy County's thriving farms.
U-Picking is nothing new, especially in the sunshine state; rich blueberries, fresh oranges and bright red strawberries. U-pick farms are a little harder to find in north central Florida. However, in Williston you can find one of the only u-pick farms in Levy County.
140th street – now U-pick Lane, the home of growing farms that attract thousands of people from Central Florida and across the state. Since 2011, Red White and Blues Farm has taken their bushes to another level. Now with the recently added café and farm store filled with blueberry desserts, the Blues Farm is a one stop shop, for visitors to pick and eat along the way.
From growing to packaging the blueberries are picked, cooled and shipped— fresh.
Devin Robinson, one of the owners of the Blues Farm says every blueberry here, because the water quality here in Williston is very unique. "The blueberry is 95% water. So each one of our varieties has a little bit of a distinctive flavor," he said.
While Florida is packed with thousands of acres of blueberries, the local rivalry is the least of farmers worries. University of Florida Professor Steven Sargent says growers in mexico recently started planting blueberries - creating a threat against national growers.
“We can see more volume therefore lower potential prices for our growers, that could in the long run be bad for our growers if we suffer from lower prices during our traditional high price window." He says developing new varieties and lowering production costs, are potential ways to compete. “Can we mechanize the harvest operation. Can we mechanize more operations to minimize the amount of physical labor to pick the berries?”
Some growers feel that’s easier said then done.
“Maybe Florida more than any place else, it’s a very unique window," Terry Robinson, another owner of the farm adds. "Florida produces some quality blueberries. We can’t compete with the other countries; with the wages they pay versus what we have to pay.”
But locally grown fruit has its advantages over imported fruit that can take weeks to arrive.
“We may see a little difference in quality because they’ve lost water. They’re going to be a little less turgid or firm," Sargent said. "For example, here in Florida they’ll be going directly to our distribution centers and they’d be out into the store within 4-5 days of harvest."
While blueberry season doesn’t last long and it seems easier to grab a pack from the grocery store -- customers say there’s nothing sweeter than a hand-pick berry.