Blueberry Fields Forever
For more than a century, citrus farming, cattle ranching and phosphate mining have dominated Polk County’s economy. But as consumers have driven up demand for nature’s No. 1 antioxidant and citrus farmers look to diversify their crops, the region is becoming a hotbed for blueberry farming.
Connecticut investor Stan Phelps is spending millions to convert some of the 18,000 acres of reclaimed phosphate mines he’s bought in and around Bartow to create a blueberry operation. In March, the Wall Street veteran opened a 103,000-sq.-ft. berry packing and distribution center in Bartow. During its first harvest season this spring, the Clear Springs Packing House and Distribution Center processed and packed 1.2 million pounds of blueberries — a quarter of the state’s overall production — for 33 growers. Clear Springs also is expanding its blueberry farm from 150 acres to 1,000.
“For fresh blueberries, we’ll be the largest in the country,” says Bartow native Jack Green, a former citrus farmer who is overseeing Phelps’ blueberry operation.
|Watch a blueberry's path from vine to store in a tour of the Clear Springs facility, narrated by Trend's Amy Keller.
The growing season for Florida blueberries gives the state’s producers a strategic advantage, letting them capitalize on a supply gap after the Chilean harvest ends but before berries in the North have ripened. “Historically, there’s not much supply in the March, April, May window — precisely when blueberries are at their best in Polk County,” says Clear Springs Vice President Dorn Wenninger.
Former Haines City citrus farmer Gerald Mixon and his sons branched into the blueberry business 15 years ago. Their SunnyRidge Farm supplies Wal-Mart and has grown into an international supplier. Green says blueberry farming is also a good venture for small growers. “It’s going to get a lot bigger in Florida.”
- 2,600 — acres of blueberries harvested in Florida last year
- $32.9 million — total cash receipts for Florida blueberries last year
- $4.70 — wholesale price per pound of blueberries last year
- $7 — wholesale price per pound this spring because of weather damage to out-of-state crops
- $14 — price per pound consumers paid for blueberries this year