Blueberries are no longer just a niche crop in Hernando. They've gone mainstream, according to growers and Stacy Strickland, director of the county Cooperative Extension Service.
About three years ago, growers began planting in larger quantities after finding that the local climate was amenable and that local and commercial markets existed for their fruit. As of the most recent agricultural census, in 2007, sales of all berries in Hernando accounted for $3.7 million, whereas production previously was so small that it wasn't even counted.
Growers continue to expand their plantings, Strickland said, and the enterprise has produced substantially more dollars since the 2007 census.
The local success has attracted international attention. A contingent of faculty and students from Hosei University in Tokyo, studying Florida's similar-climate agronomic crops, recently took a regional tour that included a visit to the blueberry farm of George and Joan Casey of rural Brooksville. The Caseys were called upon to describe the intricacies of growing their crop.
Along with the Caseys, Dan Ebbecke of rural Masaryktown has found success in blueberries. Ebbecke has been working his ground recently, plugging bush seedlings into three more acres, adding to the 13 already producing blueberries. When not in the field, he's been selling blueberry plants from his 23 varieties to would-be commercial producers and backyard growers.
Most of the local commercial growers have achieved certification to gain access the big European market, Strickland said.
Ebbecke's biggest buyer is a California broker, which packages for worldwide sales. Ebbecke raises the only organically registered blueberries in Hernando.
Licensed contract pickers harvest his produce, which is carted to a brokerage in Dover, between Plant City and Tampa, then back to a local supermarket, or perhaps to a "green" grocer in Paris or London.
January's long-lasting below-freezing temperatures didn't damage his blueberries, Ebbecke said.
"We're vulnerable after the buds open," he said, and the blossoming begins in late February.
As for this year's blueberry harvest in Florida, Ebbecke pointed to estimates from the state Department of Agriculture of 18 million pounds, compared to 14.1 million pounds last year.
"It looks like the biggest year," he said.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.