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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Apr. 22, 2020 5 months ago

COVID-19 forces local blueberry farms to alter picking seasons

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Two blueberry growers in Ocoee and Horizon West are finding their footing in the new normal brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
by: Danielle Hendrix Associate Editor

Blueberry season is in full swing, but things are a little different for local growers this year.

By now, the coronavirus has permeated nearly every facet of society. In Central Florida, the hospitality, entertainment and restaurant industries, in particular, have been hit hard.

However, Florida growers also are feeling the pressure. Those who typically sell their products to the restaurant and hospitality industries are facing loss of crops. On the U-pick side, it’s up to the growers whether they choose to keep operating.

At both Tom West Blueberries in Ocoee and Beck Brothers Blueberries in Horizon West, families from West Orange County and beyond enjoy gathering during the season to pick their own berries.

COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into plans for both growers, though. At Tom West Blueberries, co-owner Scott West and his family decided to shut down their U-pick operations in the interest of safety. Although they technically are allowed legally to continue operating the U-pick sector, they decided to err on the side of caution. It wasn’t an easy decision, West said, especially because their U-pick farm operations include a playground, tractor rides and boat rides.

“We want to do what’s best for everybody, no matter what, and that includes our employees, kids and the families that come,” West said. “We felt like it just was in everybody’s best interest to be safe. … We didn’t really have enough information about (the virus), in my opinion, to not limit the social distancing. Instead of trying to police that or manage it, it’s better to just go to a drive-thru or walk-up type scenario.”

The blueberry farm now is offering drive-thru service to those interested in purchasing anything from fresh blueberries, honeys and jams to popsicles and ice cream. West also has partnered with Dale Volkert, who owns Lake Meadow Naturals farm in Ocoee. West has begun selling Volkert’s farm-fresh eggs, and Volkert has sold Tom West blueberries for a while now.

On the commercial side, it was set to be a great year for blueberry farmers, West said. One problem Florida blueberry growers face is foreign competition, especially with blueberry imports from Mexico. Additionally, commercial consumers that purchase produce for the hospitality and entertainment industries aren’t buying much now that the virus has halted most operations. 

Dale Volkert, of Lake Meadow Naturals, and Scott West, of Tom West Blueberries, have partnered to sell each other’s products.

“The agritourism has definitely been stifled by this,” West said. “Of all the things that farmers deal with, I’ve never seen anything like it as far as putting a hold to what’s going on in the community and everywhere. We get excited about just supporting our community with fresh local fruit and honeys and things like that, and it’s a real downer for everyone — for us and the community.”

Over at the Beck Brothers farm, U-pick operations still are up and running. However, co-owner Glenn Beck said, the farm is seeing about 60% of the traffic it normally does. With 17 planted acres of berries on about 40 acres, Beck said he believes the space lends itself to social distancing guidelines.

“We installed hand-washing systems, and we sanitize all the buckets, so we felt there was no risk to the public as far as staying open,” Beck said. “We didn’t really know what to expect whenever we started. We kind of went into this thinking, ‘Well, if people don’t adhere to the rules and it looks like it’s getting chaotic or people aren’t practicing social distancing, we’ll close it.’ Everyone has been very kind, very courteous, very considerate of everyone around them. There has been zero problems.”

One difference is that Beck Brothers primarily deals in the industry of commercial citrus, but it doesn’t do commercial blueberry picking. For blueberries, the farm solely operates on a U-pick basis. Anything that isn’t picked falls to the ground, but Beck said people generally do a good job of keeping up with harvesting the crop.

“We had our critics whenever we decided to open, and we said, ‘Well, we really didn’t think that — this being a farm-produced product — we didn’t think it was anywhere near as a bad as going to the grocery store or gas station or anywhere else,’ and I think our experience has proven that,” he said. “I think everyone (is) enjoying a place to go that’s in a safe environment, and it’s really been a pleasure. There seems to be somewhat of a cohesion among everyone that, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together, so we’ll step back or wait in line and be courteous of the next person.’

“We definitely feel like we’ve been blessed with the fact that we can continue doing what we’ve been doing,” Beck said.

Danielle Hendrix is the Associate Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. She is a 2015 graduate of the University of Central Florida, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a minor in world comparative studies. ...

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