A tiny blue fruit continues to adapt and thrive in Florida fields, and as a result new jobs are popping up around the state.
Steve Sargent works for the University of Florida specializing in post-harvest horticulture and said that he’s watched this happen.
“As blueberries grow here, so do people involved in the production, the sale, the sport, the suppliers, the bushes, the people, fertilizer, tracking, packing — all of those jobs are spin offs of the expanding industry,” he said.
Blueberries are not native to Florida. They are typically found in the Northern states like Michigan and New Jersey, but are also in places like Georgia.
Florida Blueberry Growers Association Secretary, Sheri Brothers has held her position as secretary for about 16 years and has watched science change the blueberry business in Florida.
“There’s a lot more varieties out there,” she said. “That means a lower price and more competitors, but people keep wanting more.”
Brothers also works in “growers relations” for Alpine Fresh, a Florida blueberry packing shipping and marketing company that moved to Florida two years ago.
“Alpine has grown fantastically,” she said. “There’s just so many growers now that need packing.”
Jeffery Williamson specializes in small fruit efficiency and production practices at UF and said the breeding program is responsible for varieties that have been able to adapt to Florida weather and produce high-paying berries in the earliest market window in the country.
“There now is a commercial blueberry industry valued at close to $70 million in Florida based almost solely on a product developed by the University of Florida that did not exist a couple of decades years ago,” he said.
According to an article published by the Tampa Bay Times, cultivation science at UF is largely responsible for the state’s blueberry harvesting roughly tripling in the past 10 years.
James Olmstead specializes in blueberry breeding and genetics at UF and said that the cultivation at the university does not deal with GMOs.
“We only do traditional hybridization as has been practiced for centuries,” he said.
Jennifer Ferguson started Bluefield Estate Winery in Gainesville with her husband Bradley about three years ago, but said blueberries have been in their family for over a decade.
She said her grandfather was one of the forefathers of bringing the fruit to Florida, and that her husband grew up farming Florida berries.
Ferguson said that the blueberry boom hasn’t greatly affected the workload on the farm since their berry sales come from their U-pick, but that she’s had to spend more time in the winery to keep up with wine production.
Brittany Gann has worked doing front-end managing for Bluefield for almost the entire time it has been open, and said the semi-sweet blueberry wine is the company’s top seller.
Ferguson said that they are looking to expand the acreage of their farm to keep up with demand and that sales from the U-pick alone has about doubled every year since they’ve opened.
Anthony Scaife knows a little bit about blueberries, too.
Every Wednesday afternoon people circle Scaife to take his famous “juice tour.” Scaife is the owner of Chef Anthony’s Ambrosia, a local cold pressed fruit juice company.
He uses local blueberries in his popular Mr. Feel Good juice and said he’s found many ways to make a business from blueberries.
“I show farms how to utilize their calls — the blueberries that no one wants — and I cook them down, add some spices, and make phenomenal sauces,” Scaife said.
“I’ve been doing blueberry BBQ sauce for over 15 years,” he said. “And I’m from Chicago, so I know BBQ sauce.”
When he’s berry shopping, Scaife said he buys 150 pounds and always buys from the same two farms, so he has not noticed any big changes in pricing.
Gann said that while working for the industry, she has noticed more and more U-picks and blueberry wineries appear in North Florida, but that she’s not worried about the competition.
“With all of the trends surrounding health and antioxidants, blueberries are big,” she said. “But there’s plenty to go around.”