U-Pick Season: Blueberries
By Mary Stein Hurst
Blueberries are heralded as a fruit with many health benefits. The tasty, sweet berries, coming into season this month, are credited with softening skin, boosting memory power, and warding off bladder problems.
Studies have shown that a half cup a day – either fresh or in a pie – can attack cancer-causing free radicals and may block the growth of tumor cells.
Ron Mattson of Lonesome Oak Blueberry Farm, located at 2852 Thornhill Rd. in Winter Haven, is glad they do. He has five acres with three blueberry varieties. There are approximately 3200 to 3400 blueberry plants per acre. Most of his crop is picked for commercial use, but after the pickers have harvested, he and his brother open up farm for individuals and families to pick their own, usually in April.
“I take notes on the crop and how it progresses each year,” he says. “I walk this farm daily and know what’s going on with every plant we have.”
His family grew citrus in Lake County, but when he moved to Polk County, he and his wife, Lynda, decided to try their luck at growing blueberries.
“It’s a high density farm,” he says. “Because of the way the blueberry plots are planted, it’s the equivalent of having nine acres planted.”
Blueberries are native to North America, however, the most popular variety in Florida were developed not to survive the summer heat, but rather to thrive in November when temperatures are below 45 degrees.
Called “chill hours,” the time determines how much fruit the bushes will yield in the spring.
“Growing blueberries is very hands-on farming,” he says. “You are in the fields every day, fertilizing, pruning and watching for disease.”
He grows three blueberry varieties: Jewel, Emerald and Spring High. Mattson says although it varies each year, it looks like this season the Emerald will be yielding the most.
His brother runs the U-Pick operation, which he calls family-friendly.
“We have families who come and pick several buckets one day, and will come back for more,” he says. “That’s because they eat so many on the way home, they need to pick more.”
Some blueberry farms charge for the berries by the pound, others by the bucket.
Mattson says he charges by the pound, usually around $4. A typical bucket will hold between five and six pounds. They also supply clamshells for the berries to go home in.
Those berries that make it home uneaten should be put directly in a zipper lock freezer bag and put in the coldest part of the freezer and they will keep for a couple years.
“Never,” he advises, “wash them before your freeze them.”
Mattson’s farm, which has various specials during the u-pick season, is one of several in Polk County that are open for people who want to pick their own berries.
True Blue Winery in Davenport, owned by Howard and Fatima Gill, began small nine years ago when they started growing blueberries. They’re adding more plants each year. Some of the berries are picked and taken to the packing house, and others are used to make jam or wine, both of which they sell in their bistro winery, open Thursday through Sunday on Pink Apartments Road.
Fatima Gill says families return year after year to pick berries at True Blue because of the family friendly atmosphere, in addition to the quality of the berries themselves.
“They come back because the blueberries are fresh, they’re not sprayed,” she says. “They also return every year because they enjoy having the owners onsite to visit with.”
True Blue’s u-pick season is April 21 to May 10 from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.