HUDSON — Drive east on Hudson Avenue 4 or 5 miles west of U.S. 19 until you get into open country and the roadside signs start to appear: “U-Pick Blueberries.”
Most years the picking starts in March, but cooler weather this year delayed ripening timetables. But halfway into April, lovers of the plump blue fruits were in the fields pickin’ away.
“We need 65-degree nights and 85-degree days before we have ripe fruit,” said Bob Waldo, owner of Bob’s Blueberry Farm and U-Pick in Hudson. “Some years it’s early; some years it’s late.”
That’s farming, said Waldo, who began growing berries on the farm off Hudson Avenue in 1996. Several farms sprung up along the road, and if anyone has ever wondered why the strip is rife with berry farms, Waldo can tell you: “It was me,” he said. “There’s only a couple of farms out here I didn’t have a hand in helping start.”
In the beginning, Waldo supplied stores and produce distributors and a was a major cultivator of plants. He sold plants to others who planted fields in his neighborhood and they continue today. These days, Bob’s is U-pick only.
Competition from Georgia, Mexico, Chile and other countries killed his wholesale business.
“It started to cost me more to grow them than I can sell them for,” he said. “You used to be able to do really well; today you could be a millionaire, as long as you start with $2 million.”
In the early days, Waldo and others growing in Central Florida had the world market for the first berries of the season. They used cultivars bred by the University of Florida and Florida berries were the first to make it to market everywhere in the world.
He said eventually other countries got into farming, with UF working with Mexican farmers to duplicate the yields, quality and harvest periods enjoyed by Florida growers, which made wholesaling impossible for himself and other local growers.
“It used to be blueberries were a specialty, but now they’re just a commodity,” Waldo said.
Today, he has 8 acres planted with five or six varieties. Some species are engineered for more yield, while others for greater size or early ripening. He likes all the varieties he grows and says he has no favorites.
“They’re all good,” Waldo said.
On April 15, he opened for picking. There were lots of green fruit still on the bushes but enough ripe berries to open for pickers like Tracy Jager of Palm Harbor. Trips to pick at Bob’s are a father-daughter tradition every year, she said.
“It’s a regular outing for us,” she said. “It’s an annual outing we do once or twice and year; we always come to Bob’s because of the quality of the berries.”
Jager filled her first bucket with 6 pounds of berries in short order, and was working on a second bucket, working her way down the rows, her eyes scanning the green foliage for the deep, big blue fruits amidst all the little green wannabe berries that were a week away from their prime.
“No, that one’s ugly,” she said when asked if a fat berry was a candidate for her bucket.
That’s the appeal of U-pick. Sunshine, fresh air and just like the birds that prey on Waldo’s crop, his customers get to choose the best fruits. A pound is $4, but for those who don’t want to work for them can buy them already picked for $5.
Since birds can take as much as 10,000 pounds a season, that means up to $50,000 out of Waldo’s pocket. It’s a loss he’s come to accept, as nothing he’s tried to keep them away (sonic devices, nets, repellants) has worked.
“I’ve tried everything and just gave up,” he said. “The birds get their share and that’s just the way it is.”
Waldo said picking this year should extend into the first part of June. If it gets too hot, the berries “just cook and die,” he said. “By June it starts to get too hot.”
When the season is over, it’s back to pruning, fertilizing, treating plants for any fungus or other issues that might crop up. In January when the plants flower, 2 million bees will be brought in from a keeper in Dade City to handle the job of pollinating the new blossoms, which will become ripe fruit two to three months later depending on Mother Nature. Once established, blueberry plants can live and produce well for up to 15 years, said Waldo.
Waldo believes the quality of his berries stand up to any found anywhere in the world, and often better. For locals, they also are fresher.
“I spend a lot of effort and treat it (farming) a lot more personally than some big operations; that makes a difference,” said Waldo.
In addition to supporting local growers, buying close to home means the freshest possible fruit.
“Berries shipped from Chile spend 11 days on a ship before they make it here,” said Waldo. “That can’t compare to fresh, local berries.”