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Citrus woes, climate create opening for blueberry crop in Tampa area

Production of blueberries — those sweet midnight-colored gems that command premium prices across the country — is growing in this region, with no signs of slowing down.

About 35 percent of the state’s crop comes from Hillsborough, Pasco and other nearby counties, and the University of Florida considers this area to have the highest growth potential for the crop.

The same climate that allows this region to claim the title of Winter Strawberry Capital of the U.S. also is perfect for growing blueberries, growers say. The draw for farmers is the high yield of fruit per acre and the price they can elicit for the delicate and mostly handpicked fruit. If there is a downside, it’s the high startup cost, which can run from $20,000 to $25,000 an acre.

About 15 years ago, most Florida blueberry farms were 1 to 5 acres, said Dudley Calfee, a blueberry consultant and president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. Those small farms are mostly U-pick operations now. New commercial farms are upward of 50 acres.

Calfee said there were only a few hundred Florida acres planted in blueberries in 2000. Now there are about 8,000, with a gross wholesale value of about $100 million.

In Hillsborough County, farmers have planted about 600 acres in blueberries, which in 2012 brought in about $10.7 million for growers selling to wholesalers, said Simon Bollin, Hillsborough County’s agribusiness development manager.

Florida, whose berries are first to the market each spring, is seventh in the nation in blueberry production, behind states such as Georgia, Michigan and California. Its market is the East Coast all the way to Canada.

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Though the petite berries are never expected to overtake citrus as king in Florida’s agricultural realm, some orange and grapefruit growers are giving the mighty minifruit a good hard look. Citrus greening, a bacteria-caused disease that kills mature fruit trees, has spread to every county with commercial citrus production, devastating the industry and forcing some growers out of business.

“Blueberries are a good crop for those looking to get out of citrus. It’s a good one to explore,” Bollin said. “It has the potential to yield a lot more (money) per acre.”

“Right now, we have a lot of citrus folks looking and some trying blueberries,” Calfee said, noting that blueberries make for good neighbors to both citrus and strawberries.

Michael Strahan of Eshenbaugh Land Co. recently attended the semiannual meeting of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association and said there was a lot of talk about portions of former citrus groves turning to blueberries.

“What I am hearing is because citrus is in the fight of its life right now, growers are looking for alternatives, what to do with their property,” Strahan said. “Some of them are making no money, so they are pushing over trees in favor of cattle or hay to maintain their greenbelt status. A few are looking to blueberries as a crop for the future.”

It’s not like citrus growers are giving up on oranges and grapefruit, said Gary England, a multicounty extension agent with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Statewide, there are still hundreds of thousands of acres of citrus.” The chance is zero that a crop like blueberries, or the more recent Florida crop, peaches, will ever overtake the state’s signature crop, he said.

“Some are trying a small portion of their land to see how it goes before they invest too heavily,” Strahan said.

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Because Florida blueberries are first on the market each spring, retailers can rake in upwards of $9 a pound early in the season, something that got Trey Starkey’s attention.

Starkey family members sold most of their Pasco County ranch to residential developers in 2013, but Trey Starkey set aside some acreage on the ranch for blueberries. He became partners with Aaron Derksen, who already was in the business, and the two now grow about 60 acres on the Starkey Blueberry Farm, including 47 acres of Starkey Ranch property.

“I got into blueberries because of the rate of return; I get to keep a chunk of land — and they’re pretty,” said Starkey, who came from a cattle ranching family. “They’re right outside my office window.”

Besides, he said, it’s always good to be involved with a crop that hits the market first during the season. The key to higher profit is getting Florida berries to market before May 20. The market period of April 1 to May 10 is almost exclusively a Florida market, when prices stay high.

In central Florida, the first berries typically hit farm stands and grocery store shelves in mid-April. Starkey calls blueberry farming an outdoor sport that’s dependent on the weather, so the timing is a bit unpredictable.

Whether he will keep adding acreage depends on whether he can purchase existing blueberry farms, he said. He acknowledged that blueberries, which grow in three major Florida regions — the Tallahassee-Pensacola region, the Gainesville-Ocala-Palatka region and the Sarasota-Fort Myers region — require a lot of upfront financing.

Still, new farms are going in regularly, England said.

“I saw piles and piles of pine bark recently near a farm that’s adding 30 or 40 acres,” said England, who is based in Lake County. Pine bark is used as mulch around blueberry bushes.

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“In the last seven or eight years, the production acres have increased at least by 40 percent,” said University of Florida horticulturist Shinsuke Agehara, who conducts his research from the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm.

Agehara said the Hillsborough region is a good fit for new varieties of blueberries the university is creating because they require less chilling. “Also, we don’t have as many freezes compared to North Florida. This area could definitely grow” in blueberry production, he said.

The university, which has been breeding blueberries for 60 years, has released varieties of the southern highbush blueberry, with names such as Emerald, Star and Jewel planted heavily during the past decade.

Just how profitable blueberries can be in Florida is difficult to predict because of the high variation on cost and yield from farm to farm, UF research points out. There also is uncertainty about future market prices and labor availability. Most blueberries are picked by hand.

One thing that is certain is their growing popularity.

Blueberries have gotten big enough in Florida that the state now has several festivals devoted to the tiny sweet fruit. Brooksville will host the state’s official festival April 16-17 in its downtown area.

A festival that started five years ago as a way to raise money to hire a Mainstreet Brooksville director drew 60,000 people last year to enjoy entertainment along with blueberry pie, wine, shortcake, beer and more, said festival President Michael Heard.

Since 2010, Heard said, the festival has expanded beyond Brooksville’s borders and is helping to promote the crop with the help of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

Twitter: @Yvette_Hammett

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