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Competition keeps local blueberry growers on their toes

When Raymond Hancock started his Blue Gold of Valrico blueberry farm 20 years ago on a five-acre patch just north of State Road 60, his crop was hardly in demand. Overshadowed by well-established strawberry and citrus operations, blueberries were a product found more in northern Florida and Georgia. "Back then, I had to convince a broker to sell them," Hancock says. But as retail prices have risen though the years, more local farms have begun growing tangy, deep-blue Jewel highbush varieties in Hillsborough County. More than 500 acres are dedicated to blueberries countywide. After medical research five years ago showed that the fruit contains antioxidants that may have cancer-fighting properties, bigger farms started getting into the action to capitalize on the demand.
And now South American countries like Chile and Argentina are crowding in on Florida's brief March-to-May season. Word is that Mexico will ramp up imports in coming years, putting an additional squeeze on Florida's season with less-expensive berries. Growers there pay $4 a day to pickers, versus the $8 an hour earned on farms north of the border. Hancock expects his Valrico farm will produce 5,000 flats of blueberries, equivalent to 28,000 pounds. Small local producers like him are hanging on by exploring new niches, such as a certification that his berries are free of pesticide residue. "Last year was the first year, and now I'm the only grower in the area who has it," Hancock says. Warm weather earlier in the year is making for a shorter season, says Wayne Glover, co-owner with his brother Stan of Alpha Growers Blueberries in Plant City. Last year, they trimmed their bushes in June with berries still on the branches. This year, most of his 20 acres have been harvested. The Jewel blueberries are at their peak after they've been exposed to 300 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees. The Glovers, whose family has lived for four generations in Plant City, have recorded fewer than 50 hours this year. "I get eight to 10 calls a day asking when we're going to start the U-pick season." he says. "Honestly, I'm just hoping to have a season. It's that scary." That won't stop the town of Brooksville from serving blueberry shortcakes from May 4 to 6 at the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival. (The featured entertainment is, naturally, The Blues Brothers tribute band.) Gary Wishnatzki, president of blueberry and strawberry broker Wish Farms, says blueberries make an attractive crop for growers because bushes need only be planted once every 10 years -- as opposed to strawberry plants, which are plowed over annually. Wishnatzki sees a time when blueberries could catch strawberries in this region in terms of revenue produced per pound. "We're on our way to becoming known for blueberries," he says. "It wouldn't surprise me to see more national recognition." Blueberry Zucchini Bread 3 eggs, lightly beaten 1 cup vegetable oil 3 teaspoons vanilla extract 2¼ cups white sugar 2 cups shredded zucchini 3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon baking powder ¼ teaspoon baking soda 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon 1 pint fresh blueberries Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 4 mini-loaf pans. In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, oil, vanilla, and sugar. Fold in the zucchini. Beat in the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Gently fold in the blueberries. Transfer to the prepared mini-loaf pans. Bake 50 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a knife inserted in the center of a loaf comes out clean. Cool 20 minutes in pans, then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely. Source: AllRecipes.com Blueberry Fields Salad 1 cup chopped walnuts ½ cup balsamic vinegar 1/3 cup blueberry preserves 1/3 cup olive oil 2 (5.5-ounce) packages spring greens and baby spinach mix 2 cups fresh blueberries 1 small red onion, halved and sliced 1 cup crumbled blue cheese Heat walnuts in a small skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, 5 minutes or until toasted and fragrant. Whisk together balsamic vinegar, next 2 ingredients, and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste in a small bowl. Combine walnuts, spinach mix, and next 3 ingredients in a large bowl. Drizzle with desired amount of vinaigrette, and toss to combine. Serve immediately with remaining vinaigrette. Source: Southern Living Blueberry Cheesecake Ice Cream ½ cup sugar 1 tablespoon cornstarch ½ cup water 1¼ cups fresh or frozen blueberries 1 tablespoon lemon juice For the graham cracker mixture: 2¼ cups graham cracker crumbs 2 tablespoons sugar ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon ½ cup butter, melted For the ice cream: 1½ cups sugar 1 (3.4 ounce) package instant cheesecake or vanilla pudding mix 1 quart heavy whipping cream 2 cups milk 2 teaspoons vanilla extract In a small saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch. Gradually stir in water until smooth. Stir in blueberries and lemon juice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes or until slightly thickened, stirring occasionally. Cover and refrigerate until chilled. In a large bowl, combine the cracker crumbs, sugar and cinnamon. Stir in butter. Pat into an ungreased 15-in. x 10-in.x 1-in. baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool completely on a wire rack. In a large bowl, whisk the ice cream ingredients. Fill ice cream freezer cylinder 2/3 full; freeze according to manufacturer's directions. Refrigerate remaining mixture until ready to freeze. Whisk before adding to ice cream freezer (mixture will have some lumps). Crumble the graham cracker mixture. In a large container, layer the ice cream, graham cracker mixture and blueberry sauce three times; swirl. Freeze. Source: Taste of Home Vicki's Blueberry Peach Freezer Jam Servings: 6 - 8 ounce containers 1½ cups blueberries, crushed (approx. 2-1/2 cups blueberries) 1½ cups peaches, chopped (3 to 4 peaches) 1 teaspoon lemon juice 4½ cups sugar ¾ cup cold water 1 box Sure Jell Stir together crushed blueberries, chopped peaches, lemon juice and sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes. Bring to a boil the water and Sure Jell. Boil for 1 minute. Stir into fruit mixture. Stir for 3 minutes. Ladle into freezer containers. Freeze after 24 hours. Optional: Add 1/8 to ¼ teaspoon almond, vanilla or orange extract for additional flavoring. Source: BakeSpace.com

jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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