State’s spring crops ripe for the picking

Emma Chandler, right, of Tampa, puts blueberries into a bucket while picking alongside her parents, Kathrine and Keith Chandler, at Shady Brook Peaches and Blueberries in Sumterville.

Wander on U.S. Highway 301 3 miles outside the Village of Fenney, and you might be fooled into thinking you’re in Georgia. It’s there where residents may find an orchard in Sumterville abundant with fuzzy, orange-pink peaches, prized for their sweet taste and nutritional benefits. Mid-April to May is a bustling time for area farms as Villagers and area residents seek out locally grown fruits. Peaches, as well as blueberries, are the key crops this time of year. Leonard Northup, who owns the Sumterville farm with the peach orchard, grows blueberries as well. Collectively, Florida’s seasonal fruit crop business — which also includes oranges and strawberries in the winter months — is one of its most lucrative segments of agriculture. Florida ranks third in the nation in terms of the market value of fruits, tree nuts and berries, with sales of about $1.3 billion annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. They’re also critical for generating agritourism to “U-pick” farms where customers can pick their own fruits from the farm where they’re grown.

Abundance in Blueberries

Right now, Florida is in the middle of its blueberry season, which traditionally runs until mid-May. The season was just starting in the tri-county area when The Villages held its inaugural Brownwood Blueberry Festival on April 9.

Florida produced more than 23.6 million of the 673 million pounds of blueberries grown in 2019 in the U.S., marking a greater harvest than the two years prior, according to the USDA.

The tri-county area has a number of blueberry farms located within driving distance of The Villages, including Back Road Berries, located on County Road 103 in Oxford. It’s only a short drive from the Southern Trace and Buffalo Ridge shopping centers.

Farm owner Mary Beth Locke expected a plentiful harvest of berries because of cold winter mornings giving her plants enough chill hours, time spent in temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, needed to grow.

Cold temperatures extending into the early spring caused the berries to take their time ripening up, she said. However, the abundant blooms may mean her season will last longer than usual.

Locke’s four-day-a-week picking at the farm could continue through the end of May, depending on how her blueberry plants fare, she said.

Another local farm, Abshier Blueberry Farm in Belleview, just opened its second field for picking two weeks after its season started, owner Emery Abshier stated on the farm’s Facebook page.

“We have two or maybe three weeks left of our season with this week being our best week to pick,” he said.

Plenty of Peaches

Northup, of Shady Brook Peaches, grows blueberries as well.

But as the name of his farm suggests, it’s better known for its peaches.

Peaches are ripe for the picking at the moment, said Northup, who’s had picking open since mid-April. The peach season typically runs until May, like the blueberry season.

He said he expects his freestone peaches to be ready for picking this weekend. Freestone peaches are peaches of which the pit can be easily removed after biting into the fruit or cutting it in half, which makes them ideal for fresh consumption, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.

These differ from clingstone peaches, of which the fruit’s flesh is attached to the pit. Because it’s harder to separate the flesh from the pit, these fruits are favored more for processing than eating fresh, according to the AMRC.

Interest in growing peaches in Florida has increased in recent years. As of 2017, there were 219 farms statewide that have 904 bearing acres in peaches, according to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture. That’s up from the Census in 2012, when Florida had 185 farms with 776 bearing acres of peaches.

Continuing research

As peach growers reap the rewards of their harvest this season, they’re also looking closely at upcoming University of Florida research that could help them grow peach trees that may better resist floods.

UF/IFAS researchers led by Ali Sarkhosh, an assistant professor of horticulture sciences, identified three peach rootstocks that can survive flooding.

While flooding is a concern for all crops, researchers looked at peaches because several hundred acres of Florida-grown peaches were lost to Hurricane Irma’s floodwaters in 2017, according to UF/IFAS.

Flooded peach trees can negatively affect fruit size and quality, and lead to premature fruit drop, Sarkhosh said.

“We’re searching for flooding tolerance for peaches before a storm wipes out any farms,” he said.

The university’s blueberry research also is benefiting growers, such as Locke, who’s had success growing varieties developed by its scientists such as Southern highbush.

This season, a new blueberry variety bred by UF/IFAS researchers, known as Sentinel, was introduced. Field tests found that the cultivator grows best in North and Central Florida, has a higher quality than other varieties that researchers bred and tastes good.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.