The season is ripe for blueberry picking, and the weather has been, well, downright perfect.
That thought was not lost on Jen Barber, 35, of Land O'Lakes when she packed up her three sons and ventured into the new U-pick fields at Starkey Blueberry Farm.
The plan was to pick enough to fold into pancake batter come Saturday morning, with a little left over to freeze.
"We're doing pretty well, considering," Barber said, as her 9-month-old son, Cale, snoozed in his baby sling while brothers Jimmy, 6, and Josh, 2, scampered in and around the long rows of ripening bushes. "I think I would do better on my own, though. They keep eating what I pick."
Not a problem, according to Trey Starkey, 53, who oversees the operation with his business partner, Aaron Derksen, 43.
Starkey knows well the allure.
He stands at a strapping 6-foot-4, but there's a hint of the boy he once was when he reaches down to pluck a handful of Spring High blueberries.
"I love blueberries. I'm all about blueberries," he said with a grin, as he popped another one into his mouth and scanned the fields beneath the wide blue sky. "This is the view out of my office. It's kind of like looking out at a vineyard."
There's a good memory to share: a family road trip when he was a kid and a stop at a little U-pick in Franklin, N.C.
"They had these kind of blueberries," Starkey said. "They were like candy to me."
That's part of what started this venture. That and a staggering economy and a yearning for an encore career that is sprouting on 47 acres of bahia cow pasture held back when his family sold Starkey Ranch to Wheelock Street Capital in 2012.
"I'd been doing the real estate drill for 25 years, but the recession wore us out," said Starkey, who handled the sale of the family ranch with his brother, Frank.
After that, he started looking into profitable alternatives. Blueberries came to mind.
"I studied with the harsh eye of a sceptic," Starkey said. "I looked around, figured I've got enough ag experience that I could get my brain wrapped around it."
A mutual friend introduced him to Derksen, who owned a successful commercial blueberry farm in Hudson. Derksen also serves as pastor of West Coast Word Church in Tarpon Springs, which he started with his wife, Angela.
"Trey and I met up and talked business," said Derksen, adding that before long they were partners.
They pooled their interests, combining Starkey's cow pasture with Derksen's farm and Starkey's business savvy with Derksen's agriculture experience. Starkey, the husband of Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, became CEO. Derksen was named COO, in charge of daily operations on the farm.
In 2014, they got started. It took 15 months to get the farm up and running with an irrigation system, roadways built from millings left over from the repavement of U.S. 19 and truckloads of mulch that was necessary for the blueberry bushes, which were planted at about 2,400 per acre.
Early on, the partners put together a mission statement that includes a long list of bullet points — "to profitably grow bodaciously tasty blueberries" and "to profitably get blueberries from field to retail." It also includes the philosophy of nurturing a balanced lifestyle that includes "God, family, work, play, learn, give back."
"We have a good partnership together — strong, Christian-based, " Starkey said. "We just felt it all lined up with God pulling it together with the money and the land."
That's a boon for husband and wife Chuck Baxter, 79, and Jan Andrews, 74. They live in Country Place Village, a retirement mobile home community next to the farm, and had been watching the farm's progress as well as the master-planned community being built on the old ranch. They were delighted with the prospect of being just a stone's throw from a favorite food source.
"We rode our bikes here, but we could have jumped over the fence," Andrews said as Shawn Gandee, 42, bagged their pickings. "I'd much rather have this than buildings. The more green the better."
While the Hudson farm has been selling commercially for about 15 years, this is the first harvest for the Starkey property. Eight varieties of blueberries are grown there, but this year's harvest season looks to be later than expected and only about one-quarter of the projected 420,000 pounds.
In 2015, some 25 million pounds of blueberries were produced in Florida. Weather plays a part, though. This year's overall harvest is projected to be down between 17 million and 19 million pounds because of an unseasonably warm fall that stunted production and a cool spring that made for sluggish ripening. Birds can make a dent as well — particularly migrating cedar waxwings, which have a voracious appetite for blueberries.
Even so, Starkey and Derksen are already looking to expand. Future plans include the planting of blackberry bushes and, perhaps down the road a bit, an on-site packinghouse.
Berries picked by commercial pickers will be marketed by Wish Farms in Plant City and sold in stores up and down the eastern seaboard.
As for the U-pickers?
"We give them a bucket, start them in a field for $5 a pound," Starkey said. "Or you can buy fruit priced for $7 a pound. So if little Johnny gets worn out picking, well, we'll sell you some."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.