Blue to the bone
No matter whether he's at home or at work, Jerod Gross is surrounded by nature's candy - sweet, tasty blueberries. His day job is Blueberry Farm Manager for Island Grove Ag products, one of the larger blueberry producers in Florida. But once he goes home, he still has to help run Down South Blues, his own personal blueberry farm he runs with his wife, Lisa, and her cousins Sarah and Chris Aschliman. "I treat them both as my own business," said Gross, who more or less married into blueberries. Originally from Punta Gorda, Gross ran a pool caretaking business. One day he made a comment to his wife's uncle that perhaps he'd take up blueberry farming. That uncle just happened to be Ken Patterson, one of the owners of Island Grove, and he offered Gross a job instead. "I never went to school for any ag. I learned everything I know from Island Grove, hands-on training and sweat equity," Gross said.Both farms produce blueberries for SunnyRidge/Dole and are sold near and far. Gross' berries are some of the first of the season that appear in grocery stores. "Everybody's strategy in the blueberry industry is to be early," said Gross, indicating that the first half of March is the time frame he shoots for. "The earlier the better for Florida. There's nothing better than fresh Florida fruit," he added. As the season picks up, the market gets flooded with blueberries from Georgia. He currently grows six different blueberry varieties at Down South Blues in Arcadia, each with their own different flavor and each ripening at different stages. After the family has boxed up about 70,000 pounds of blueberries for the commercial market, they open up their farm for U-pick. This year Down South Blues offered U-pick from April 26 through June 2, selling about 500 pounds a weekend. Now that the season is over, they'll spend the summer doing weed control, general maintenance, fertilizing, and spraying of any necessary herbicides, fungicides or pesticides. "In September we'll start to put them to sleep," said Gross. As the plants go dormant they are weaned off of fertilizer and water. Sometime in December, a rest-breaking chemical is sprayed to "wake the plant up." From there the flowers start to open up and the fruiting process has begun, said Gross. While it may be necessary to spray some plants with chemicals while they are fruiting, Gross said they try their best to avoid it. "We do everything by the label as far as chemical and pesticides. We are GLOBALG.A.P. certified," he added. GLOBALG.A.P. is a business-to-business standard for safe and sustainable food production, reads the globalgap.org website. Gross said his two farms practice conservation by using surface water, drip irrigation and overhead irrigation for frost protection, using grass between rows to prevent washouts and soil erosion, properly disposing of oil and chemicals and ensuring the farm and farm labor are clean. In order to get into many local supermarkets, they require good ag practices, he stated. One challenge growing blueberries this far south is that the bushes require a certain number of chill hours in order to fruit. Some plants and trees, like blueberries and apples, require a minimum period of cold weather before they will blossom. "We've had some challenging years due to lack of chill," Gross lamented. With the varieties available to him at Down South Blues, there's not a lot he can do except keep plants healthy and pray that Mother Nature will come through. But through a special grant Island Grove has been working with the University of Florida to test some lower-chill varieties. Gross serves on the IFAS overall extension advisory committee and the IFAS Desoto ag tourism committee. He also coaches youth flag football, which he described as "challenging, fun and rewarding." "I feel truly humbled that I am able to manage all farming operations for Island Grove Ag Products Arcadia division," stated Gross. Gross said that farming is a full-time career that takes a lot of heart and dedication, and he could not do it without the support of his partners and family, including his two sons Blake and Landon, whom he calls his "two future farmers." "The ag community is a great community," he said. Does he miss the pool business? Not a chance. "Once you get into ag you never want to stop," he said.