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Crowds Pack U-Pick Blueberry Farms, Raise Safety Concerns

At Red, White and Blues in Williston on Sunday, people flouted the six-foot rule as they lined up, and most wore neither gloves nor masks. (Photo by Carlos Cunha)
At Red, White and Blues in Williston on Sunday, people flouted the six-foot rule as they lined up, and most wore neither gloves nor masks. (Photo by Carlos Cunha)

With the arrival of blueberry season, u-pick farms have become popular spots during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Williston, the Red, White and Blues Farm was visited by as many as 1,000 people during this past weekend, with a line at the weigh station that was about 100 yards long, according to Terry Robinson, one of the farm’s owners.

Complaints about the lack of social distancing even brought law enforcement officers to the farm’s property.

According to Gov. Ron DeSantis' stay-at-home order, farmers and farmworkers who are producing and harvesting field crops are essential workers.

Ronny Thomas, an owner of the 18-acre Aunt Zelma's Blueberries farm in Island Grove, said he was seeing as many as 200 visitors a day during the week, and as many as 500 on weekends.

“The schools are closed and many people are without work,” Thomas said. “We are just one of the activities that people can still do.”

Chance Clay, who owns Clay Ranch in Florahome with his wife and son, said before the pandemic's outbreak they would get 30 to 40 visitors during the week and 200 to 400 on the weekends. Now they are seeing 200 to 400 during the week and 400 to 800 during the weekends.

“We’re blessed to have people coming,” Clay said.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that blueberry farms are doing well. Clay said the commercial side is hurting because imported berries are bringing prices down.

“We are held to very high standards and we grow a high-quality commodity,” Clay said, adding that "it really hurts" to see imported versions sold in area grocery stores when berries are available from farms like his.

Each blueberry grower said they have taken measures to keep visitors and workers safe, setting up hand-washing stations and sanitizing the buckets. Workers in the fields are expected to wear gloves and masks. Clay said most visitors are even bringing their own masks and gloves.

Thomas said he has a release form for visitors to sign, to protect the farm legally.

At Red, White and Blues, visitors on Sunday saw the parking area practically full and people lined up without the recommended six feet of distance between them. Most wore neither gloves nor masks, and no one appeared to be trying to make the visitors observe the distancing guidelines.

Robinson said the guidelines are not easy to enforce, because visitors often arrive in large family groups. “We work as hard as we can work at it to keep everyone as safe as we can,” he said. “But what am I supposed to do with these big families? Am I supposed to split these families up?”

Red, White and Blues was visited by law enforcement officers. According to Robinson, they walked around the farm and told him to keep doing what he was doing.

Robinson said he does not expect the virus-related surge in visitors to help the farm in the long run. All he wanted to do, he said, was make sure people enjoyed themselves and stayed safe.

According to Lt. Scott Tummond of the Levy County Sheriff's Office, there have been multiple complaints about Robinson's farm. Last week the office received a report of about 150 cars and 300 people there, but when deputies arrived fewer than 30 cars and 50 people remained.

The farm has also been inspected by county agriculture officials multiple times in the last two weeks.

Tummond ensured that the Red, White and Blues farm is “doing everything within the guidelines set by the governor and the county.”

Kasamba is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.