Blueberry U-pick season in full swing in West Orange
It’s Florida’s blueberry season, and West Orange-area residents have several nearby options to pick some of these beauties.
| 10:02 p.m. April 27, 2016
West Orange Times & Observer
It’s almost summertime and the weather is heating up, but so is Florida’s blueberry season.
In Florida, the berries generally come into season and begin ripening around the last week of March or the first week of April, depending on the weather. The season can last into the first week of June.
The berries do well in Florida’s climate, but they also need a fair amount of chill hours — a specific length of time in which they are exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees — to come to fruition.
According to the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, there are nearly 30 U-pick blueberry farms in the state, and two of them — Beck Brothers Blueberries and Tom West Blueberries — are local.
U-pick farms allow visitors to hand-pick their fresh fruits and vegetables, which saves farmers on labor and shipping costs. It also offers consumers the freshest possible produce at lower prices than at a grocery store.
With Florida’s unseasonably warm temperatures this winter, blueberry season was delayed slightly from last year, but both the Tom West and Beck Brothers blueberry farms are now open for business.
BECK BROTHERS BLUEBERRIES
Up until the booming development in the Windermere and Horizon West areas, the Beck family’s land was used for some orange groves and cattle. Now, it is in its sixth year as a U-pick blueberry farm.
The Becks grow three varieties of blueberries: Emeralds, jewels and Windsors. Jewels and emeralds are typically large, very sweet berries, although jewels also can be tart. Windsor berries are also very large, firm and sweet to taste.
“Typically, blueberries haven’t been a big thing in Florida — just the last few years — because they couldn’t get enough chill hours to make them produce, but they’ve been producing very well,” said Glenn Beck, of the Beck Brothers farm.
Because the blueberries’ ripening depends on the weather, the Becks opened their farm to pickers in March last year, but just began this year’s U-pick season the week of April 18.
“It depends on how warm the weather is and how much rain there is,” Beck said. “We tell people that as long as there’s berries here, we will be here.”
Beck recommends that everyone at least try some blueberries, even if they aren’t a fan of the berries. His blueberries are not sprayed with anything, and the family welcomes guests to sample them off the bush.
“The main thing is going for the dark, completely turned blue berries, because if they’re not really ready they’ll have a green or red blush to them,” Beck said. “They will ripen and continue to color on their own after they’re picked.”
Beck said if people put the berries in the refrigerator and keep them cool, they can last a few weeks. To freeze the berries, he recommends washing them and placing them separated on a cookie sheet so they don’t stick together. After being left overnight, the berries can be transferred to a container or bag and will last all year.
The Beck Brothers farm’s prices include six pounds for $15 or three pounds for $10. Guests also can purchase blueberries by the pint.
TOM WEST BLUEBERRIES
The Tom West Blueberry farm has been in the family since the 1920s, when Tom bought it as a plot of orange groves. After the greening disease hit, he and his grandson, Scott, decided they needed to come up with a new agricultural plan. The family removed the remainder of the orange groves and began planting blueberries. Today, the Ocoee farm consists of 10 acres of them.
Scott now is in charge of caring for the plants, and he and his family grow four varieties of blueberries: Primadonnas, Spring Highs, emeralds and jewels.
“Spring Highs are large berries, super sweet, with thin skin and shorter shelf life,” Scott said. “Primadonnas are a little smaller and super sweet, with a longer shelf life. Emeralds are mainly just huge berries, and jewels can be sweet or tart.”
Scott advises berry pickers to go for the bluest ones, as they are the tastiest and sweetest. Berries with red or green on them are not yet fully ready.
“The bluer, the sweeter,” Scott said. “(Also) early-morning and late-afternoon picking is when the berries are the firmest. Mid-day they’re a little soft, they like to be kind of cooled off.”
Once picked, refrigerated blueberries can last anywhere from two to five weeks, but Scott suggests freezing some to keep as healthy snacks and to make them last longer.
“They’re such great nutritional treats for kids when you freeze them,” he said. “I freeze enough to carry me through next season, and whenever the kids want a snack or reach for chips or candy, I give them a cup of blueberries from the freezer and they love them.”
Tom West Blueberries’s prices are $4 per pound if you pick them, or $5 per pound pre-picked. It also offers free tractor-cart and boat rides on the weekends.