It's rapidly becoming a favorite season of the year. Although typically only lasting 6 weeks, Lake County's blueberry season is bountiful.
The state's history of growing blueberries began in the late 1800's. The sweet, tasty crop was one of Florida's tastiest secrets. It wasn't until the 1970's that the current hybrid cultivar blueberry was introduced, and by the mid 1980's mass plantings took root in north central and northwestern Florida. The industry has grown tenfold and over the last 30 years, hundreds of small blueberry farms have sprouted throughout the state.
One local farm, Far Reach Ranch, was established in the 1940's for cattle and citrus. Its first blueberries were planted in 1994 and the initial harvest was laboriously packaged by hand on the farmer's dining room table.
Kent and Cathy Hamill now operate the farm with 43 acres of blueberries and a u-pick season that runs from April through the end of May.
The farm also sells blueberry jam, salsa, syrup, spritzers and other products all made from their farm's berries.
Another local farm, King Grove, was originally established in 1874. It is now a USDA certified organic farm with 20 acres of blueberry fields and 20 acres of orange groves.
The good news for farmers this year is in spite of a season that may yield fewer berries, it promises to be more profitable due to current market conditions, according to Cathy Hamill.
Although Florida plants produce approximately a quarter of what Michigan's prolific blueberry plants yield, the season differs from the northern states, so local blueberry farming remains a viable business.
The U-Pick season typically runs April through the end of May with current prices ranging from $4 to $8 depending on the farm. Here's a list of local U-Pick blueberry farms and their price per pound and current U-Pick hours:
Far Reach Ranch Heavenly Blueberries 1255 South Dora Blvd., Tavares, (352) 343-7389 $4 per pound, U-pick hours: Thurs.-Sat, 9-5pm Green Acres Fernery, Blueberry & Peach Farm 8635 High St., Yalaha, (352) 360-5445 $4 per pound, (call for hours) Lake Catherine Blueberries 5849 Lake Catherine Rd., Groveland (352) 551-4110 U-pick hours, Everyday 9-5 (opening April 29) Sand Hill Blueberries 31614 Bottany Woods Dr., Eustis (352) 636-8204 $4 per pound, Call for U-pick hours. Blue Bayou Farms (organic), Highway 48 (at Bloomfield), Yalaha, (352) 324-4069 $5 per pound (organic), Tues-Sat. 9-5, Sun. 9-3 King Grove Farm (organic), 19741 CR 44A, Eustis, 352-589-2450 $8 per pound (organic), weekends only, 9-2pm
Due to weather, field and berry conditions, U-pick hours can change so it's recommended pickers call the farm prior to visiting.
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Above & below: Fields and blueberries at Far Reach Ranch in Tavares