ODESSA — The orange grove had been there since the 1920s, planted by her grandparents, on the land she has lived on almost all of her life. After nearly a century, the trees were diseased and dying. It was heartbreaking, but, as a farmer, Carleen Gunter needed to find something to replace the beloved grove on her 5 acres in Odessa.
In 2009, like many other growers in Florida, she decided to try blueberries. They're popular, and the bushes are great for a u-pick business. Gunter loved eating them. And they are quick to develop.
"With blueberries you get your crop faster," Gunter said. "So I knew that there was a chance of at least being able to make a profit sooner."
She called the business BlueYouth Berries and became part of a large blueberry boom in Florida, which, after several years of increase, appears to be holding steady, experts said.
Blueberry farmland more than tripled in Florida, from 1,360 acres in 1997 to 4,500 in 2012, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In Hillsborough County, the boom was even more frenzied. In 1998 the county had just 70 acres, said Stephen Gran, Hillsborough County extension director.
By 2011, Hillsborough had 590 acres devoted to the berries, an increase of more than 740 percent.
Blueberries became appealing to growers because of several Florida-friendly varieties developed by the University of Florida, Gran said. Blueberries were traditionally grown in the North, as they like a chilled, dormant time. These berries didn't need to chill as much.
Another lure for area growers was the opportunity to fill a void in the market, Gran said. Florida blueberries have a short season, typically from late March through early May, but it falls at a prime time — after the South American harvest and before other states get going. So while Florida is just eighth in the nation in terms of area harvested, it typically gets the highest price per pound because it fills this niche time, according to national agricultural data.
Gran and other experts predict the blueberry farming rush might be stabilizing in Florida.
"What we anticipate is that it may grow some, but the boom is probably over," said John Watson, licensing associate for Florida Foundation Seed Producers, Inc., a not-for-profit that handles University of Florida patents on plants.
In the past two decades, UF has churned out about 25 patents on blueberry plants, Watson said. Popular varieties in Central Florida are Emerald, Sapphire, Primadonna and Jewel.
"Over 90 percent of the Florida blueberry industry is comprised of the University of Florida-developed varieties," he said.
The university gets 30 cents for each patented blueberry plant sold, Watson said. The royalties generated $1.6 million in 2012. In the plant licensing division, it comes in second to strawberries, which brought $2.1 million to UF last year.
Gran said blueberries are a $5.5 million industry in Hillsborough County, which sounds like a lot. But it's still a small slice of the $832 million agricultural picture, behind vegetables, ornamental plants, aquaculture, beef cattle and citrus. Strawberries reign supreme here at $388 million, Gran said.
Statewide in Florida from 2010 to 2011, the money brought in from blueberries increased nearly 50 percent, from $47.3 million to $69.1 million. But then it regressed. Blueberry farming is not easy. Growers weed by hand. The bushes need to be pruned. Sprinklers checked. Insects fought. And the weather, as always, can be fickle. Area farmers said 2012 was their hardest year yet. Statewide, cash receipts dipped to $62.1 million. A mild winter led to a short harvest.
And there were the birds.
"This is what the robbers look like," said blueberry farmer Joy Stafford, as she pointed to a picture in a magazine. Cedar waxwings are small with a slicked back spiky tuft atop their heads. They have a rakish black band around their eyes.
"Like a mask," she said.
They love berries. Last year, the skies in Hillsborough were thick with menacing, Hitchcockian swarms. Stafford runs Stafford Blueberries in Brandon with her husband of 50 years, Doug, who is 74 and got into the business six years ago for something to do in retirement. They hired high school boys to light firecrackers to scare the birds.
"It made all the neighbors within a mile of here mad at me," Doug said Tuesday, sitting in the shade at their u-pick farm.
"Not all," corrected Joy. "Some. Some were mad. Some called the sheriff."
Doug laughed. He told the deputy who responded that he didn't know what else to do. As he pondered options, the birds apparently had their fill and left.
"We don't know what makes them move on," Joy said.
For the couple, the business is a ministry. Doug, an Army veteran and fifth-generation Floridian, spent his career as an accountant. Joy, in addition to being a mother, worked as a school librarian and historian. But they always lived an Old Florida life, raising cattle and growing vegetables. During the blueberry season, they open their small farm to the public to give people a window of what life used to be like.
"For a lot of people, this is as close to country as they get," Joy said.
They have two young friendly cows and a 33-year-old horse, which children on field trips get to feed. The neighboring farm has peacocks and donkeys. Doug decided to venture into blueberries when he heard about a plant nursery going out of business. They had blueberries for sale.
"I bought a few," he said.
"Honey," Joy said, "he came home with 1,200 plants."
The grandparents of seven enjoy meeting people and fussing over the kids who come. Recently, Joy worried because Doug was late coming home. She called him and he was out in the fields with a 90-year-old woman who said she wanted to pick blueberries one last time before she passed away.
"I will be here until she's done," Doug told his wife.
Things like that make all the hard work worth it, they said. Doug said he plans to continue with the farm as long as he can. This has been a good season so far. They decided to stop fighting the birds, which haven't shown up in such large numbers this year.
"We are not going to set off firecrackers," Doug said. "If the birds come, the birds come."
And they might. Over at Jordan Farms in Dover, blueberry division owner Robert Memmel spotted some cedar waxwings recently.
The scouts usually come before the swarm.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.