Whether it’s signs welcoming guests to the city, branding with the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce or the annual Florida Strawberry Festival, there is no denying Plant City is, indeed, the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.
The city takes pride in its famous crop, but another berry has found sustained success in Plant City and surrounding areas in recent years.
“We got into it in 1997, and over these last four or five years, there has been a huge exponential increase in blueberry production in Hillsborough County,” says Ryan Keel, of Keel and Curley Winery.
Keel says the initial market window for blueberries in Florida was high, and although that has diminished slightly, it still holds a good value.
“It’s still the best crop-dollar-per-acre value around,” he says. “There’s nothing that comes close to it.”
Not even strawberries, which Keel says has a good return but comes at a high cost per acre. Additionally, although strawberries are considered a fairly tough crop to grow and maintain, blueberry crops usually have high success rates.
“That’s one of the attractive things about blueberries,” Keel says. “It is a fairly easy crop to grow, if you know what you are doing.”
The blueberry-growing season in Florida starts in late March and continues through April and early May. According to the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, the state is the only place in the world growing fresh blueberries during about half of that season.
Although production in Florida is significantly less than outputs up north, the prices per pound are usually better than those crops.
“The industry is continuing to grow and the demand continues to grow,” says Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Plant City-based Wish Farms, a national produce broker, marketer, seller, shipper and packer.
Wishnatzki says blueberries are following a similar trend as strawberries in the early 20th century, with many small and family-owned blueberry farms in the region. With high demand, the industry is shifting to need fewer total growers and more large-crop growers. Although there are not many large blueberry crops in Plant City, Wishnatzki says there are several 75- and 100-plus-acre farms, in a zone north of Plant City and also larger farms to the south in areas such as Arcadia.
Blueberry crops still have a long way to go to reach the success and land coverage that strawberries boast, but the crop is making strides in the right direction.
“Strawberries are certainly still the more popular crop, but it’s no secret that blueberry crops can be successful here,” Keel says.