U-Pick bounty looking sweet

Published May 20, 2006

People who love things fresh are dragging picking baskets down from the garage rafters and rinsing out pails, preparing to fill them with small fruits and vegetables now ripening in Hernando County farm patches and plots.

In addition to a food lover's encyclopedia of tastes, the harvests are just starting to offer a kaleidoscope of color and textures. Plump globular blueberries, thumb-size glistening blackberries, pearly Florida sweet onions the size of softballs, ruby red beets, creamy-yellow squash and zucchini squash with silken skins.

Also on the grow are slender green beans, black-eyed, zipper and cream peas, bristly okra, plump tomatoes and, not to be forgotten, the perennial favorite, sweet corn.

It's U-Pick time - and nowhere is that more apparent than at several of Hernando's burgeoning blueberry farms, where this year's outpouring is being pegged as top of the line.

"Very good, plentiful, very plentiful, very sweet and ripe," said Ruth Davis, who has operated the 18-acre Spring Lake Blueberry Farm with her husband, Larry, for seven years.

Self-pickers were invited in for an unusually early April 25 start this year, when one of the noncommercial varieties came ripe, Ruth Davis said. The couple already had picked some berries that went to the wholesale markets in Plant City.

"Big, plump, juicy and better than last year," said George Casey of the 10-acre JG Ranch enterprise off Wiscon Road, which produced its first harvest last year.

Both growers attributed the succulent and sizable berries to irrigation and good feeding and care of the bushes. George and Joan Casey picked 45,000 pounds of berries for the commercial markets before the U-Pick season opened a week ago.

Both growers anticipate the availability of blueberries through the end of May.

While growing the fruit is a yearlong effort, Ruth Davis says picking them isn't difficult.

"Senior folks do really good," she said, noting that a 100-year-old woman who lives in Cloverleaf Estates was out picking in the rain Tuesday morning.

"Bless her heart," Ruth Davis said. "We gave her a discount."

She added: "Some people have never picked, but they do fine. We just tell them to look for the blue ones. The red ones aren't ripe. We have ropes on buckets to tie around their waists and they pick with both hands."

Larry Davis, who might be considered a professional picker, can harvest 18 pounds of berries in an hour. But his wife noted that women on a recent morning were plunking 6 pounds into their bucket in a half-hour.

How many blueberries in a pound?

Casey tells people to go to any supermarket and look at four containers of the fruit. They equal just more than a pound.

Casey's berries are selling at $3 a pound this year, up by 50 cents from last year. The Davises have held their price at $2.50.

Blackberries, turning from red to black ripe at Bramble Creek Farms south of Brooksville, are promising a bountiful crop said co-grower Ann Altman, who works with husband, Gene.

"So far, so good," she said of what will be their third harvest. They are hoping for picking to begin Memorial Day weekend.

Some pickers delight in the fact that the Altmans' cultivars are thornless and grown on trellises: no jaggers and no bending over, Ann Altman said.

Many visitors pick amounts, at $3 a pound, sufficient for cereal toppings, cobblers, pies, jelly and jam.

But Altman remembered one man last year carried home 60 pounds. She guessed he was going to make blackberry wine.

At Beasley Farm south of Brooksville, customers can see the rows of plants stretching beyond the farm's spiffy market barn, staffed by Joann Beasley's mother, Angie LeDuc. Beasley and partner Rolando Chach tend to the 28 acres of vegetables that vary by the season throughout the year.

For now, Beasley and Chach are cutting squash, pulling onions, beets and carrots. Quantities are offered for the table and for home processing.

Squash is the current big attraction, with the farm packing 100 half-bushel cases a day. The headliner is a new 8-ball squash, a round green squash to be stuffed like a sweet pepper. LeDuc shares recipes with customers.

U-pickers will get their chances in the Beasley fields when peas and green beans come to harvest in the next couple of months.

Beasley and Chach also truck their considerable produce to the wholesale markets in Tampa, returning with crops they don't grow themselves or that have ripened earlier than here. Meaty tomatoes from Ruskin are now in, along with cantaloupes and watermelons. So is South Florida sweet corn.

All of the 20 acres at Frazier Farms in Brooksville are planted with sweet corn but owner David Frazier runs the farm market like a community project, inviting other growers to sell their vegetables alongside the summer favorite.

Of this year's corn, which is just coming into harvest and will continue into late June, Frazier said:

"Beautiful, probably the best we ever had."

It takes time to get everything just right, he explained: knowledge, time, effort, equipment. Now that he's retired from a full-time day job, he's getting it right. He has even cross-pollinated to produce his own bicolor variety, which he simply calls Frazier corn.

The Frazier family will harvest a second crop of sweet corn in October.

Beth Gray may be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net


FOR BLUEBERRIES: JG Ranch, 17200 Wiscon Road; Spring Lake Blueberries, 25688 Powell Road; D&S Blueberry Farm, 19125 Phillips Road.

FOR BLACKBERRIES: Bramble Creek Farms, Culbreath and Hayman Roads, call 796-5473 for picking appointment.

FOR SQUASH AND OTHER VEGETABLES: Beasley Farm, 10137 Preston Road.

FOR SWEET CORN AND OTHER VEGETABLES: Frazier Farms, 20175 Manecke Road.

U-Pick bounty looking sweet

From blueberries to blackberries to sweet corn, this year's crops at area farms promise a plump and plentiful harvest.