I’ve just spent a delightful day of blueberry picking at Bradenton’s King Family Farms. To reward myself for the fun work, I pulled out the blender, poured in my Florida blueberries, added some fresh sliced peaches (also picked at the farm), drizzled in some vanilla yogurt, added a little milk and “whirr” goes the blender. I sit down to this towering, frothy, healthy and delicious drink, and can’t think of a better way to boost my day.
Blueberries. They’re sweet, small, bite-sized, and ideal for enjoying in yogurt, on cereal, in muffins, pancakes, desserts or smoothies. But the petite berries are also ideal for eating as is or even as a light snack. Sometimes they even have a tangy taste, so you can get the sweet and tart flavor, all in one bite. Whichever way you enjoy the fruit, most of us love these flavorful indigo colored berries.
They’re also good for us. Packed with antioxidants and reported to be one of the healthiest foods around, this “superfood” is loaded with special nutrients and amino acids. According to experts, blueberries can enhance memory, reduce cancer risk and improve cardiovascular health.
Let’s see, they taste good and they’re good for you. Do you need any more convincing?
Florida has always been known for its fresh, delicious citrus and even its sweet red strawberries, but blueberries? While blueberries have grown wild in Florida for hundreds of years it is only in the last several decades that farmers began commercially cultivating the crop. And recently, with increased interest in healthy eating, blueberry production in Florida has climbed significantly. Florida farmers have found a niche in bringing early season blueberries to market before farmers in Maine, Michigan and Oregon even begin cultivating their crops. It’s our fine Florida weather that allows our farmers to cash in on an early spring crop for all who love the fresh, delectable berries.
So, now is the perfect time to grab your buckets and pick those precious berries. But don’t wait too long, because the season is here and gone in no time. Generally the “picking window” lasts from end of March through end of May (depending on where you are).
Florida’s New Crop
Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the berry craze – both for the fruit’s delicious taste and its healthy benefits, and market demand is increasing. According to the U.S. Blueberry Council, North Americans consumed almost 2 ½ pounds of blueberries per capita in 2011. Central and north Florida farmers have stepped up to meet the increased market demand. According to Gary England, University of Florida extension agent and fruit crop specialist, within the last 13 years, the Florida blueberry industry has expanded from about 1,000 acres to around 5,500 acres farmed today. This year’s harvest should be about 25 million pounds of fresh market blueberries valued at $70 million. That’s a bunch of berries!
Visiting a Farm
Shelby and Ben King, owners of King Family Farms began growing the bluish berries for health reasons and as they became convinced of their nutritional value, their passion morphed into a new crop for the farm. The Kings farm 16 ½ acres of blueberries, 1 ½ of those available for the public to pick. They have two main varieties of blueberries – Emerald and Jewel. In addition to the blueberries, they have an orchard of peaches also available for picking. Saturdays, they host a farmer’s market open to consumers and invite nearby growers to showcase and sell their produce. The Kings operate their farm seasonally with fall bringing in sweet corn, squash and heirloom tomatoes, the winter crop is broccoli, lettuces and root vegetables while the spring brings in blueberries, peaches and tomatoes.
Picking Your Own
To find out where you can pick blueberries (or other Florida produce), an on-line website called “Pick Your Own” at www.pickyourown.org lists U-Pick farms throughout Florida. By selecting the Florida region and then choosing the county, you’ll find farms nearby.
One thing to remember is to be sure to call before you plan your trip, as these are usually small mom-n-pop farms, and generally have specific days and hours they are open. Often, they have “picking” updates with hours on their voice mail.
U-Pick farms usually supply a bucket to make it easier to pick and store. Here are a few more tips to make your experience more fun:
· Dress comfortably and wear sunscreen
· Bring a hat
· Bring a cooler to keep the berries cool after picking
· Select firm, ripe berries
· Bring cash