Running Down a Florida Blueberry Dream

Running Down a Florida Blueberry Dream

Ryan Atwood and his wife Alison achieved what has become a challenging task by establishing a first-generation farm after they purchased property near Umatilla in 2013. At the time, there were 25 acres of citrus on the land, and they faced a decision about what kind of farmers they would become.

“We picked a little citrus fruit off it, but it was a declining grove,” Atwood says. “I told Alison we could either replant citrus or go with blueberries on the property. After running the numbers, we decided to go with blueberries.”

Atwood’s background paved the way for blueberry farming. With a degree in forestry from the University of Florida, his early career focused on that industry while he lived in Georgia.
Later, his scientific background landed him a position at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, which later led to an Extension position after John Jackson retired from his Extension agent post at the Lake County Extension office.

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“I was new to Extension and was learning a lot about citrus production in the new job,” Atwood says. “Just as I felt like I was getting up to speed on citrus, I got a call from grower Gary Miller, who was pushing a citrus grove. He asked me what I knew about blueberry production, which was nothing. He told me I was about to learn because I was his fruit crops Extension agent.”

Atwood says he began “drinking from the fire hose,” learning all he could about growing blueberries. He had to learn quickly because it was on the cusp of the blueberry planting boom in the seven-county region he covered in Central Florida.

“All of a sudden, everybody was planting blueberries, and nobody really knew anything about how to do it,” he says. “It was exciting because I was there sort of at the ground level. I fell in love with it.”

After his run with Extension, Atwood took what he learned about blueberries and went to work for KeyPlex in a sales position where he sold a foliar fertilizer product developed for the crop (KeyPlex Blueberry DP Formula).

The job allowed Atwood to travel to Georgia and other blueberry-production regions to learn more and save toward his ultimate goal — a farm of his own.

Starting With a Workhorse
With all he had learned, Atwood planted his first 23 acres of Florida blueberries on their newly purchased property in fall 2014. On 17½ of those acres, Atwood decided to go with the workhorse of varieties suited for Central Florida — ‘Emerald.’ On the other 5½ acres, Atwood planted ‘Flicker.’

cluster of Emerald blueberries in Florida

‘Emerald’ blueberries
Photo by Frank Giles

“I went with ‘Emerald’ because it is such a good, consistent producer,” he says. “You will hear growers say it was an ‘Emerald’ year, which means you get all the right conditions to really hit a home run with the variety. But, even in a more normal season, it is a good yielder.”

While ‘Emerald’ has served as the foundation of Atwood’s production, ‘Flicker’ didn’t have the consistency to last, falling victim to cane anthracnose. He pushed the variety and replanted with ‘Arcadia,’ which is grown in an evergreen system to push for early harvest.

“‘Arcadia’ is a vigorous plant that has the high production we are looking for and works well in the evergreen system,” Atwood says.

He also grows ‘Avanti’ on the farm, along with an assortment of other varieties planted in trials. The farm now totals 27 acres.

Firm Foundation
Atwood says the material you plant blueberries in makes a difference in their productivity and longevity. He planted a little differently than most. Because of the farm’s sandy soil, he chose to add more organic matter.

“I incorporated pine bark and compost into the native soil,” Atwood says. “It is pretty common to incorporate pine bark, but I took a chance adding ground-up yard debris that were composted for two years. After I put it out, I kind of panicked because I started seeing fungi growth and worried whether it was good or bad. It turned out good because compost is loaded with organic matter,” he says.

“The sand on our farm has 0.5% organic matter. I incorporated that with 20% organic-matter compost and 7.5% organic-matter pine bark. I ended up with a really organic, well-drained soil. We supplement with more pine bark applied to the beds every other year. Plant health and the amount of pine bark you use are definitely correlated.”

The Zen of Dormex
Atwood uses the plant growth regulator Dormex (hydrogen cyanamide) to stimulate a more uniform and early bud break in some of his plantings, including ‘Emerald.’ He says applying the product is part art and part science. When used correctly, the product can benefit production by encouraging an earlier harvest, better yield, and quality. But it is finicky and can be affected by the whims of Florida’s weather, especially in warm, low-chill winters.
He says the product should not be applied at temperatures above 80°F or below 60°F. Using the right labeled rate with adequate coverage also is important.

“You want to be sure you have coverage down the stem to cover the vegetative buds that will make your flush,” Atwood says. “You want to have enough water volume that you have droplets running down the stem. If you run through with your sprayer and don’t see a drop or two falling off the plant, I don’t think your coverage is good enough.”

Atwood applies the dynamic model to time applications of Dormex, using the Florida Automated Weather Network to track chill hours and forecasts. Application timing usually falls between mid-December and early to mid-January.

Moving to Automation
Atwood hopes to mechanically harvest half of his crop this season. Like other growers, he sees the writing on the wall. To remain viable, they must move in that direction due to labor uncertainty and competition from Mexico.

From his first planting, Atwood knew he would move toward automation, so he trained his blueberries to grow upright using orange juice cartons on young plants and applying proper pruning. He will be using a custom mechanical harvest service operated by Kyle Hill, who uses an Oxbo 8000 machine.

“Because we are so busy in the season, having Kyle mechanical harvest for us is one less thing on our plate,” Atwood says. “Plus, this is a 27-acre blueberry farm, and these harvesters are more than $100,000. Can I justify having one on a 27-acre farm? Maybe, but I think it is better to have a contractor carry the expense of the machine and have the skills to operate it well. When you put it all together, it makes sense to have a contractor.”

Diversified in Blueberries
There is a mantra in farming that it is better not to put all your eggs in one basket. While Atwood is not diversified in other crops, he is diversified in blueberries. This comes in part from the diversification of the varieties he plants, but also in other enterprises.

He has a blueberry consulting service, offering his production knowledge to other growers. Atwood also partners with the Hill family in the Billy Long Packinghouse operation. The state-of-the-art blueberry packing facility does a robust business with growers because of its unique marketing model — dealing directly with a number of buyers to leverage the best price.

Alison also is a licensed Dormex dealer in Florida, and Atwood is in the early stages of starting a honeybee pollination service.

“We love farming, and it is working out. But it comes with plenty of challenges and is not something anyone should enter into lightly,” Atwood says. “It takes a big investment, and you need enough volume of production and diversification to survive the downturns. But we wouldn’t change a thing.”

Ryan Atwood’s Top 5 Tips for First-Generation Farmers
People entering farming without the legacy, equipment, and land of multigenerational farms face a unique set of challenges. Atwood says the following are important considerations when getting started.

1. Make sure you have a market for whatever you decide to grow. I have seen some of the best growers not do well because they do not understand the marketing side of the business.
2. Make sure you have a line of credit or some type of extra liquidity, as unforeseen expenses occur. Things in farming happen such as hurricanes, hail storms, flood events, etc. Make sure you have the ability to cash flow your operation. Many farmers only get paid once a year. In addition, the Evans family is partners in the farming operation providing investment support.
3. Buy the most expensive property you can afford, not the least. The land is
the most important decision in a successful farming operation. Additionally, it is an appreciating asset over time.
4. Hire a consultant from the start. It will be money well spent and will more than pay for itself. Having someone with experience and expertise can save you from learning the hard way and losing money.
5. Avoid buying expensive technology until you are sure you need it. Technology is great when it brings savings. However, sometimes you can get by without it, especially early on when you have no cash flow.

Come Pick Your Own
One of the ways Ryan and Alison Atwood have diversified their blueberry operation is by opening a U-Pick, which Alison runs.

“We don’t have all the amenities that some U-Picks have, but our customers like that it is more of a laid-back experience,” she says. “Plus, the farm is on a beautiful property that people enjoy. We are considering adding more to the U-Pick with things like a wedding barn.”

The farm added 3 acres of organic blueberries last year, mainly because of requests from U-Pick customers. Organic berries also will be packed for commercial sale.

“There is a little learning curve with organic berries, but it can be done,” Ryan says.
Some of the challenges include fertilization and weed control. The Atwoods use a chicken-feather mill for fertilizer and have been impressed (thus far) with a new, organic herbicide called Weed Slayer (eugenol, Agro Research International).