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Blueberry business ripe for the picking

This time of year, the blueberry bushes at Merry Hill Farm are loaded with fruit.

The berries at the end of each branch are clustered almost as densely as grapes in a bunch. Some are still green; some are reddish; some are dark blue, which, as even the dimmest shopper knows, means they are fully ripe.

Two simple facts _ that berries are ready to pick in the spring and that mature bushes produce 6 or 7 pounds of fruit _ have made blueberry farming a rapidly growing if specialized business in Florida.

It is also feasible for people like Al and Karen Tuttle, the owners of Merry Hill Farms. The Tuttles do not have much land _ about 11 acres _ but they are willing to work hard. Merry Hill Farm, Al Tuttle said, "is our grand experiment."

Both work full time in Tampa, he as a postal worker, she as a software engineer. They come home to a farm on a grassy hillside off Hayman Road southeast of Brooksville. They change into boots and jeans and "work till we can't see," said Al Tuttle, 47.

That probably will change, said Karen Tuttle, 41. The farm is now reaching the stage where one of them, probably Karen, will quit work to devote more time to farming.

"We really need to take the next big leap forward," she said.

Their oldest plants, bought as cuttings in 1995, are still several years from maturity. So the Tuttles were surprised when their quarter-acre patch yielded more berries than they could give away to friends or cook up in pies. With several weeks left in the season, they have already sold well over $1,000 worth. If they cultivate nine acres, as they eventually plan to, the farm could gross $300,000 per year.

"It's a very intensive crop," said Ken Patterson, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.

Karen Tuttle said there are at least 500 blueberry growers in the state. Patterson does not know how fast that number is growing. He does know that he gets calls continually from people who are looking to take advantage of the unique market for Florida blueberries.

South America provides most of this country's winter blueberries. Berries from the traditional domestic sources, Michigan and New Jersey, do not ripen until summer. Even farms in Georgia cannot deliver blueberries until late spring.

So from late March until May, Florida growers basically have the worldwide blueberry market to themselves.

Berries harvested early in April can bring more than $10 a pound, Karen Tuttle said. Even now, a distributor in Dover pays $8 a pound for their berries, a price that will gradually fall through the rest of the spring.

"They said they'll take all the berries we can give them," Al Tuttle said.

The early season has become possible only in the last 15 years or so, with the development of strains of berries that grow well in warmer climates.

For years, growers in Florida were more or less stuck with a variety called the rabbit-eye, which is native to the state. Those bushes are good producers, said Jeff Williamson, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Florida, but their berries ripen later and do not withstand shipping as well as the most common commercial strain, the high bush.

The combination of these factors meant that the blueberry business was mostly confined to operations where customers pick their own berries, Williamson said.

The new high bush hybrids include the Gulf Coast, which was developed in Mississippi, and the Misty and the Sharpeblue, developed at the University of Florida. The Tuttles use them all, partly because the strains are especially productive when cross-pollinated, Karen Tuttle said.

The farm has 2,300 plants and two basic parts: the patch of productive plants just to the east of the house, and the nursery just to the north and down the hill, near the edge of dense woods.

Cuttings about the size of matchsticks cost 95 cents each. They are delicate, Karen Tuttle said, and making sure they reach maturity takes quite a bit of coddling.

Blueberries need water, but also good drainage. That means frequent watering and planting in a soil of porous, decaying pine bark. All of the flowers on the young plants must be picked off and discarded so the plants can devote their vitality to growing rather than producing flowers and fruit.

And because the plants are fast-growing, they have to be regularly transplanted, from 1-gallon to 30-gallon buckets.

Most growers eventually transfer plants to the soil. The Tuttles have found that the plants grow faster in pots, which prevent the fertilizer from dissipating into the ground.

Because their farm uses chemical fertilizer, it cannot be certified as organic. But the Tuttles do not use any herbicide, mostly because it doesn't seem necessary and because the most obvious form of pest control is the strands of line strung over the plants. These offer protection from birds, especially cedar waxwings, a flock of which can strip a berry patch in minutes.

Though, as with any business, the Tuttles' main motivation is money, their operation doesn't have the feel of a cutthroat enterprise.

It is all based in their house, which they built themselves over a period of six years. Three dogs, including a berry-fattened golden retriever-yellow Labrador cross named Ben, roam wherever they please. Karen Tuttle's parents, Hullah and Ron Carwithen, are moving next door from West Virginia to help with the operation.

Wednesday evening, Ron Carwithen was outside, leisurely picking berries and dropping them into two plastic cups tucked into a nail apron. Karen Tuttle was working faster.

"The idea is to get as many berries off to market as possible, and you don't do that looking at the birds," she said. "It's pick, pick, pick."

Her mother was at the kitchen counter, spreading the berries on paper towels, culling away the ones that were unripe or withered by the sun. She weighed the good berries and packed them in clamshells, clear plastic containers where they remain all the way to supermarket shelves.

"It seems like there should be some sort of conveyor-belt system," Karen Tuttle said as she watched her mother work and her father bring her two cups of berries.

"We are the conveyor belt," Ron Carwithen said.