While other farms are packing up the majority of leftover crops and shipping them off to frozen fruit companies once harvesting season ends, Island Grove, LLC., in Hawthorne, Florida, is taking a different approach when dealing with their excess fruits.
They’re making wine.
“Traditionally when the market price drops on blueberries and blackberries, they either stay in the field and go to waste, or we hedge the fields early and they are discarded,” said Sarah Aschliman, general manager at Island Grove Wine Company. “We realized that we had such an abundance of leftover berries every year, and we wanted to create something new.”
In 1990, Aschliman’s father and owner of Island Grove LLC., Ken Patterson, together with other family members, purchased 40 acres of land, 20 of which were filled with blueberries, in Hawthorne.
They continued to cultivate until the blueberries filled all 40 acres.
In 1999, they partnered up with a farm down the street that had about the same amount of blueberries. Then they collectively began to grow in the business as the health benefits surrounding blueberries emerged and the popularity and demand of the fruit rose.
The amount of blueberries available in Florida caught the eye of Vermont wine maker Chase Marden, who soon proposed the idea of a winery for Island Grove.
“I moved to Florida in 2001, specifically because I was falling in love with making blueberry wines, and there was only 80 acres of blueberries in Vermont at the time,” Marden said. “I knew that blueberries were a growing crop in Florida, so I initially moved to Largo where I had a small winery for a few years. I came to Island Grove in 2006 and purchased about 5,000 pounds of blueberries to make some wine.”
The Island Grove farms in Hawthorne hold about 175 acres of blueberries, and another 175 acres of blueberries are housed in another Island Grove site in South Florida.
Ninety of the acres are filled with organic blueberries, and an additional 10 acres are filled with organic blackberries, a rare crop to be seen in Florida.
Today, 2 million pounds of berries go out to grocery stores from Island Grove.
Marden said, after visiting the farm, he enjoyed the quality of wines he made with the fruits, so he pitched the idea in 2008 to make a winery with the excess berries. In 2009, he met with the Island Grove team and developed the idea for Island Grove Winery, which has now been open for 4 years.
Ken Patterson jumped on board with Marden and soon developed a wine-making process with the leftover berries that weren’t picked by the end of the season.
“We always have a lot of berries that are still green out there that haven’t ripened up,” Patterson said. “So once they ripen up, that’s when we go out with our machine (we have a picking machine) and shake the bushes, and so we will shake the whole field and get the last part of the crop, and that’s what we use for wine.”
The small batch production within the 500 gallon tanks at the winery assist in creating the fruit wine’s distinct taste.
“What sets us apart is we have full control of the harvesting, freezing and fermentation of the berries that go into our wines,” Marden said. “The skins of the berries are placed in our fermentation tanks for up to 30 days and then pumped over to our press.”
The end result is a great quality similar to Merlot or Cabernet. Their blueberry wines are produced with 100 percent blueberries and lack any flavorings or grape juices and are low in sulfites.
Island Grove tries to utilize the berries in an assortment of ways, always experimenting with other after-market products like small portions of frozen fruits, dressings, salsas, honeys and the blueberry plants found in their nursery.
Patterson describes Island Grove as a versatile, multi-dimensional company. He calls them an “agribusiness.”
Chase Marden believes the use of excess berries in the making of their wines has been a great business move for the company.
“Wine can reach out more than frozen fruit,” Marden said. “It’s an exciting niche product that can be made from our blueberries. Making wine has the ability to bring all types of people together.”