Blueberries were not a trendy super food when MaryAnn Stein first heard about growing them in Florida 30 years ago at a cocktail party. But she remembers being very interested. After raising two children and working an office job, with a degree in anthropology and no experience in agriculture, she decided to give it a try.
In 2001 she planted three acres of berries on land in Brooksville she had bought in the 1990s as an investment. Starting from scratch, Stein read everything she could get her hands on. Her fertilizer supplier offered suggestions, she attended Blueberry Growers Association meetings and University of Florida extension agents visited the farm to advise her. She expanded another seven acres the next year and seven the next, until her 80 acres were covered.
Growing blueberries is expensive; it now costs more than $20,000 an acre to get started.
“It’s quite an endeavor, choosing the right plants, digging wells, installing irrigation and spreading mulch,” Stein said. Maintenance is continuous and work is labor intensive with much of it done by hand. “Blueberries are from the azalea family, so they need pruning, light, frequent fertilizer, weed control, and it is hot and humid here so fungus is a problem,” she said.
In the spring she rents and buys bees to pollinate the plants.
“And you only make money once a year, during harvest,” Stein said. But the market has been favorable to Florida growers because the berries are the first to ripen in North America.
Now Brooksville Ridge Blueberries, 1172 Hancock Lake Road, pays for itself and Stein has a year-round crew of four, a mechanic on site and a manager. The farm’s 10 varieties of 120,000 bushes produced 500,000 pounds of fruit last year.
Stein got help from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to install drip irrigation, which applies water slowly at the plant root zone where it is needed and reduces runoff and evaporation. Conservation service engineers drew the plans at no cost and District Conservationist Dan Oliver came out to her farm to guide her through the application process that helped pay for it. A tailwater recovery system with improved drainage and an irrigation reservoir was her next project with the conservation service. The system improves storm water management and captures irrigation tailwater for reuse. Stein said the PH-level of the recycled water from the irrigation reservoir is better for the plants and reduces the amount of water being withdrawn from the aquifer.
Stein prefers being outdoors, driving weekdays from her home in Tampa 35 miles north to Brooksville to work in the field 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., instead of being in an office. During freezes she stays in a small apartment above her office so she can closely monitor the overhead irrigation that keeps the berries from freezing. Toby, her large, elderly Rottweiler-Shepard-Pointer mix accompanies her as she makes her rounds up and down the rows of blueberry bushes.
A crew of 250 field workers arrives to harvest the berries around mid-March to mid-April.
“It’s like planning a wedding reception: getting the workers organized, making sure bathrooms are clean, there is a supply of ice, water and cups and enough clean buckets and flats,” Stein said.
After the commercial harvest ends in May, she opens her farm for U-Pick. By June, the cycle starts over again with cutting the bushes back, planting, fertilizing and irrigating.
Last March, Stein hired a manager and now has more time to go hiking in Colorado and travel the world with her husband, Doug. Last summer she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. Although you won’t find her family working at the farm, they love the blueberries she brings home. The Prima Donna variety is their favorite for eating out of hand. Stein doesn’t have a favorite recipe; she doesn’t have time to bake.
Stein has 12 more acres of old orange grove around the corner. She said after she replaces the trees with blueberries she will be done.
But a blueberry farmer’s work is really never done. Her future to-do list includes continuing to improve drainage and replanting the original bushes she planted 15 years ago with some newer varieties. The Florida Blueberry Growers Association just made her a board member, and she doesn’t know yet what responsibilities come with that position. But it is all worth it, she said.
“It’s been satisfying in a way I never thought possible,” Stein said.