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Blueberry lovers are pickin' and grinnin'

Sure, you could just buy a carton at the grocery store, but the JG Ranch, in Brooksville, offers a more down-to-earth, communal experience.

By BETH N. GRAY
Published May 28, 2005


BROOKSVILLE - If George and Joan Casey don't see blueberries in their sleep, they see the tasty little midnight-colored fruit first thing daily.

"Shredded wheat and blueberries every morning," said Joan of the couple's favorite breakfast.

'Tis the season to indulge in the berries fresh from the bush. And the Caseys, owners of the JG Ranch, have 17,000 bushes from which to pluck.

With most of the blueberry crop having already been shipped to supermarkets, the fields are now open for fruit lovers and pie and jam makers to pick their own blueberries. The crop likely will remain available through next Saturday, the Caseys said.

The Pinellas natives had no thought of growing blueberries when they bought 160 wooded acres off Wiscon Road in 1999. They brought in Soil Conservation Service and Forestry Service staffers for advice on logging the property.

"One of them said this would be good blueberry land," Mrs. Casey recalled Thursday as she sat at a shaded picnic table surrounded by fruit bushes.

For one thing, the property was sprinkled with sparkleberry trees, which were used as grafting hosts in the early commercial production of blueberries. "So, it's natural habitat," she said.

Although George Casey had retired from the land development business in 2000, he wasn't content to sit on the porch.

"I farmed all my life," said Casey, who once operated Bayou Vista Farm in Largo with his parents. At one point, the family owned 1,750 head of dairy cattle.

George and Joan liked the idea of growing blueberries.

"For a whole year, we read," Casey said. They consulted experts and attended seminars. Then they set out 1,800 one-year-old transplants. Planted in rows, that amounts to 8 to 10 miles of blueberry plants.

It took three years for the plants to mature and bear up to 11/2 pounds of fruit. After five years, each plant will produce 5 to 6 pounds. Production levels offs until 10 years, when the plants will have to be replaced.

The Caseys planted varieties developed by the University of Florida that were specially adapted to the Florida climate, soils and resistance to pests, and winter temperatures below 45 degrees at blossom time.

County Extension small-farms specialist Stacy Strickland applauds the Caseys' enterprise.

"They're very progressive farmers," said Strickland, who has advised the Caseys on fertilization and plant health. "I'd consider them in the top tier of producers in this area. . . . They're willing to adopt new farming practices."

Blueberry cultivation is growing in Hernando County, he said.

"I don't know we have accurate numbers. Most of the established producers are increasing acreage, and more are getting into it."

Strickland attributes the burgeoning production to Hernando County's climate, which offers a necessary cold spring blossom-set advantage over that in south Georgia and even Gainesville.

Customers can be assured of quality fruit when picking at the Caseys' JG Ranch, because of the selected varieties and because of the reputation of the packer that buys the farm's wholesale produce.

The buyer is Driscoll's, a California company with stringent quality standards, which established a cold plant recently in Dover, in Hillsborough County. Driscoll's permits no green berries, no stems, no bird bites, no damage.

In early April, 16 migrant pickers delivered the fruit to the onsite processing station, where Mrs. Casey and six others sorted the fruit by hand. Driscoll's, and the Caseys, insist on prompt refrigeration and transport. The Caseys' son, Jeff, who commutes from Spring Hill to work at the ranch daily, said the family's blueberries are transported in refrigerated trucks to a Masaryktown packer within 48 hours of being picked.

Within 72 hours, the berries are in New York supermarkets, he said.

The you-pick time started after the wholesale picking of the ripened major crop. To have kept the professional pickers waiting as the later varieties ripened wasn't cost effective, Mrs. Casey said.

The Caseys put out the U-Pick sign at 17200 Wiscon Road on a Wednesday, and customers began arriving early the next morning. They have been coming steadily since.

Self-pickers like Bill and Margit Confer of Spring Hill have helped generate $200 to $300 daily for the ranch, George Casey said.

On Thursday, the Confers walked off with about 13 pounds of berries picked in a little more than an hour.

"It's hard to believe there's still land like this, this close to Spring Hill," said Confer, 64.

"We'll probably be back," his wife added.

Alisa Duthie of Brooksville went picking with her children, Daniel, 11, Russell, 9, and Amber, 6. They harvested 5 pounds in about 20 minutes.

"We'll eat them fresh on cereal," Duthie said.

Daniel said: "This is our first year (picking here). It was easy."

George Casey revels in the self-pickers.

"The best part (of blueberry production) is the people," he says with a satisfied grin. "I've heard over and over and over again, "Remember when we picked 'em with Mama, or Grandma, and how much fun it was?' "

The fields are open from 9 a.m. to noon and 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. They are closed Sunday. The price is $2.50 per pound. For more information call 799-0556.

Beth Gray may be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net

[Last modified May 28, 2005, 00:09:12]


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