Agri Leader

High time for blueberry season

Have you bought your Florida blueberries yet?

Now is the high time for Florida's blueberry season, which began in late March and runs until May. This season had a little bit of a late start due to earlier cool weather, said Dan Sleep, a senior analyst with the Division of Marketing and Development, Florida Department of Agriculture and Services.

While Florida has been the winter strawberry king for quite some time, the blueberry market in Florida is just now on the upswing. "Our best guess is we'll continue to see our acreage expand, moving toward a 6,000-acre to 8,000-acre threshold and $80 million to $100 million in sales over the next five years," said Sleep. "That's remarkable success for a commodity that sold just a few million dollars each year during the 1990s."

In fact, Sleep said blueberries have become one of the "many stable pillars" that are part of Florida's agriculture.

So where can you find Florida blueberries right now? First, check your supermarket. Read the labels, and look for the "Fresh from Florida" marketing logo with the sun on it. Next, check your local fresh produce markets, or ask if your local farms have them. Blueberries are a big "u-pick" item, so you'll likely be able to make an event around gathering some with your family. If you search online for "blueberries," "u-pick," and your local town, you're sure to come up with a few possibilities as I did.

There are also some local festivals where you can celebrate blueberry love. The town of Brooksville held its Florida Blueberry Festival earlier this month, complete with a car show, arts and crafts, entertainment, and, of course, plenty of blueberries.

Coming up this Friday through Sunday is the seventh annual 2014 Tampa Bay Blueberry Festival, sponsored by and held at the Plant City-based Keel & Curley Winery. Organizers are expecting this year's attendance to top last year's 10,000 mark, said Megan Maguire, who's in charge of this year's festival. Festival highlights will include 90-plus vendors, live music, a kids' zone, wine tasting, and what Maguire describes as "tons and tons of food."

Of course, we can't forget the blueberries. They'll be there for the picking all three days of the festival for $4 to $4.50 a pound.

The biggest question people ask about the blueberries is whether or not they're organic, said Maguire. The answer: They're as close to organic as possible. Although the folks at Keel and Curley do spray for bug control initially, they do not spray once the fruit blooms.

In case you've never been out to Keel & Curley, the winery got its start as a blueberry farm and then grew into an ever-expanding winery featuring a number of fruit-based flavors, such as blueberry (of course), wild berry, black raspberry merlot, peach and more.

Back to blueberries - while researching this story, I discovered that there are nine counties where blueberries grow most prominently, and they happen to all be in the central part of the state. Highlands, Hillsborough, and Polk counties are on that list.

The biggest international competition for Florida blueberries comes from Chile, Mexico and Peru, said Sleep. If you buy blueberries other times of the year, those will be your most common overseas sources. Domestically, Michigan is the overall blueberry leader, along with states like California, Georgia, New Jersey and North Carolina.

"Florida blueberries continue to be sought out around the world, and we've seen them sold as far away as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan in recent years," said Sleep. Still, the state's growers have to stay on their toes to offer competitive prices and compete against out-of-state and overseas growers who are trying to extend their seasons.

So, enjoy the relatively short window of time when you can say your blueberries come from Florida-and use them in your yogurt, smoothies, or, my personal favorite, a blueberry cobbler. The Florida Blueberry Growers Association website also has additional recipes you can try.