HUDSON, Fla. (AP) - Concealed, the thieves bide their time. They know Bob Waldo's habits, they recognize his daughter, Nina Lewis, as she moves along the tidy rows in a bikini top and faded cutoffs. As one, the cedar waxwings take flight, dive bombing and knocking ripe blueberries off dozens of bushes.
Waldo, 66, has had enough. He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a handful of firecrackers. He lights a tiny fuse and tosses the pinkie-sized tube toward the tree line muttering, "Go back to Canada already." KABOOM, and about 100 pretty brown birds lift out of the trees, clearly not Canada-bound. They are barely perturbed, ready to wait out Waldo and his noisemakers for another crack at ripe berries.
The cedar waxwings are a bother at Bob's Blueberry Farm & Nursery, but they're by no means the only challenge.
"It used to be that central Florida was the only spot in the world that had ripe blueberries in April," says Waldo. "There was a four- to five-week period without fruit from anywhere else."
That window is narrowing. Chilean growers are now shipping berries right up until the start of the Florida season, which usually runs mid-March into early May. And Georgia growers are increasingly nipping at the other end, getting ripe fruit earlier with the aid of new cultivars. But in that sweet spot, when Florida is king, growers can command high prices, getting roughly $5 per pound for their blueberries.
Which is why a lot more farmers are growing blueberries these days.
"When I started back in 1996, there were maybe 800 acres in Florida," remembers Waldo. "Now there are something like 8,000 acres of blueberries. What was once a specialty crop is now a commodity."
Barbara and Tim Fleming are repeat customers. Sliding bungee cords like belts around their waists, they strap white buckets to their bellies so they can pick two-handed. Often as big as olives, the fruit of Florida's Southern Highbush species dwarfs its Northern counterparts. There are Windsors and Jewels and Sapphires and Emeralds. Lewis, 46, who oversees the U-pick operation, can identify them all by their fat, juicy berries. The Flemings don't seem to have that discernment, but their buckets fill up quickly.
Barbara owns a wellness business and these "super fruits" make good smoothies and snacks. Tim, on the other hand, seems to enjoy the Zen-like cycle of reach-pick-plink, with the occasional pause as a berry gets popped in a mouth. As afternoon rain begins to fall gently, it's peaceful in the rows.
"We should rent pews out here," Waldo says, the firecrackers pocketed for a bit.
Waldo originally kept his day job in the irrigation business, buying Hudson property in 1993 and planting just an acre of blueberries.
"It was a 'let's do this and see what happens' kind of deal."
Mistakes were made. There was the time he tidied up the rangy plants, pruning the budding blossoms - and thus, the fruit - right off the bushes. But mostly it was planting and pollinating and watering and fertilizing and pruning and hoping. Now Bob's Blueberry Farm is 28 acres, with a yield upward of 200,000 pounds of berries a year, most of it sold commercially and some of it opened up to U-pick.
According to Florida Blueberry Growers Association president Bill Braswell, the biggest change in Florida blueberries in recent years is not the number of farms (he says there still aren't enough blueberries to make a dent in the demand), but the size of the farms. When he and Waldo first started, the average farm was 3 to 5 acres; now it's closer to 50, with big players like Dole getting into the business in the past 18 months. This year's total Florida blueberry crop is likely to hit 20 million pounds.
"All of this growth has been very good to us," Braswell says. "We used to be a niche crop that may or may not be available. Now - Whole Foods, Publix, Dollar General Market - we're available and people expect to see Florida blueberries."
Still, Braswell isn't entirely bullish about blueberries. Since 2009, freak weather has impacted crops.
This year, not enough chill in January and February, followed by a March chill, caused plants to go back into dormancy, reflowering as things heated up again. This extended the season a bit, but caused farmers serious headaches. (Waldo and Lewis pulled 20 all-nighters in March, irrigating plants overhead to protect against potential freeze.)
And while prices for berries haven't dropped much, expenses have dramatically increased: The cost of fuel, labor and chemicals has skyrocketed.
"For the 3- to 5-acre farm, input costs have taken a lot of the profit," Braswell says.
He predicts smaller farms will turn more frequently to U-pick or even to planting other crops.
Lewis walks down a Highbush row, bending to pull out a thorny, knee-high weed.
She has always loved working the blueberries, shuddering when she thinks of her former life in retail.
From public relations agent to nursery manager, she wears a lot of hats at the farm.
She has just added another: research and development specialist. Next to the blueberries are rows of something else entirely, tall plants with soft green leaves and a riot of little purple flowers.
She thinks it may well be the area's first crop of another super fruit: goji berries.
Lewis is concerned that the blossoms are overly fragile, covering the ground in purple confetti instead of setting fruit. But she's going to wait it out.
Meanwhile, she and Waldo are trying to market the goji plants' leaves.
Richer in antioxidants than the fruit itself, they can be sauteed, juiced or eaten raw in salads.
Lewis has a bundle of goji stems in a coffee can by the cash box.
As Barbara and Tim Fleming pay for their 8 pounds of blueberries, Lewis gives her goji pitch.
Barbara tucks one leaf into her cheek and chews thoughtfully.
The Flemings seem skeptical as Lewis wraps a handful of stems and offers them as a gift to Barbara, bouquet-style.
But they say they'll be back to Bob's one more time in the next couple of weeks to fill a final bucket before the end of Florida blueberry season.
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