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  • Tara Crutchfield

Whitehead’s Blueberry Farm

U-Pick season is almost here! Polk County has several U-pick blueberry farms to fulfill your inner Violet Beauregarde. A repeat winner for best U-pick farm in our annual Best of Haven readers choice awards, Whitehead’s Blueberry Farm is getting their buckets ready, hooking up their wagons, and preparing to welcome U-pickers for the season ahead.


The Winter Haven-based family farm started as a plant nursery in 1979. In 2000, they became a blueberry farm and opened for U-pick. According to owner Jacqueline Whitehead, her in-laws purchased their home and the first bit of land in 1972. The family accumulated more property in the 80s and 90s, along with five acres across the street last summer, making up the 33-acre Whitehead Blueberry Farm. Fifteen of those acres are dedicated to growing over 30,000 blueberry plants.


Jacqueline and her husband John married in 1988. “He used to work for Cypress Gardens when he was a teenager, and he grew plants for them for many years. In 1999 he decided to go into blueberries, and that’s when we became a blueberry farm,” she said.


The farm is open for U-pick from the first Wednesday in April through mid-May. “Blueberries are a once-a-year crop,” said Whitehead. “When you plant the bush, it normally takes about three years for it to start producing any quantity of blueberries.”


She described the beginning of their ‘cycle’ in January and early February when they bloom, which eventually turns into berries. “They don’t come in all at one time. Every two or three days, you’ll get a whole new crop that’s ripe during the harvest time. We have the bloom. Then we have the baby berries. Usually, by the end of March, you start having mature berries that you pick and eat,” she said. During the U-pick season from April through mid-May, thousands of people flock to the farm for a day of picking blueberries, enjoying the outdoors, and slowing down for a bit.


Once they’ve been picked clean at the end of the U-pick season, the bushes are cut back in June. “That’s so they’ll put on fresh growth for the following year,” according to Whitehead. “At that point, they’re dormant, you could say. They have green leaves until sometime in December, and then the leaves will fall, and then they’ll start putting on the blooms again in January.”


EMERALDS AND JEWELS

This farm grows two varieties of blueberries – Emeralds and Jewels. “They are some of the very first blueberries ever developed by the University of Florida to grow in Florida,” according to Whitehead.


The difference between the two types of berries grown on Whitehead’s Blueberry Farm is best summarized by the Florida Blueberry Growers Association (www.floridablueberrygrowers.org/varieties). “Emerald is a vigorous bush with a growth habit midway between upright and spreading. Flowers open uniformly, and it produces abundant leaves even after mild winters. Emerald is very capable of carrying heavy crops. Berries are large and firm with a good picking scar and have a sweet flavor. Color is medium to dark blue. There are no real problems with Emerald. Root rot, stem blight, and cane canker have not been too serious.”


The article goes on to explain, “Jewel has a moderately low chill requirement. It is an early ripening and high-quality berry. Jewel produces a large number of flower buds but leafs well in the spring. Vigor is about equal to Sharpblue, but Jewel is shorter and more spreading. Berry quality is excellent but tends to be tart until fully ripe. Jewel is moderately susceptible to root rot.”


According to the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, two types of blueberries grow in Florida – Southern Highbush and Rabbiteye Varieties – both of which encompass many types of berries. Southern Highbush include Primadonna, Emerald, Star, Windsor, Jewel, Springhigh, Springwide, Santa Fe, Sweetcrisp, Camellia, Abundance, O’Neal, Rebel, Palmetto, Dixieblue, Gupton, Sebring, Millennia, Snowchaser, Misty, Gulf Coast, Sharpblue, Farthing, Scintilla, and Lenior berries. Rabbiteye Varieties include Brightwell, Alapaha, Vernon, Ochlocknee, Powderblue, and Premier bushes.


A U-PICK TRIP TO WHITEHEAD’S BLUEBERRY FARM

After using the convenient parking signs to find a spot, U-pickers will head towards the classic red and white Blue View Barn, where they’ll be given a bucket with a plastic bag for their berries. Wagons attached to side-by-sides provide U-pickers a ride out into the blueberry fields.


After picking their fill of Whitehead’s Emeralds and Jewels, guests will return to the barn where they can weigh their haul, pay, and eat! U-Pick blueberries are $4.00 per pound, or if you’d like them to pick for you, call ahead for blueberries at $6.00 per pound.


Even after picking to their heart’s content, guests at the farm often stick around to enjoy the onsite food truck on weekends serving blueberry desserts or to shop a selection of local honey, local jam (made with Whitehead’s blueberries, of course), and other goods. “I have a very talented niece who makes fused glass jewelry, and we usually have some of that for sale as well,” said Whitehead. Families can make a day of it with the playground, corn hole, and tables to relax and take in the sights.


During the off-months (September through December and January to March), the Blue View Barn is used as a wedding venue with a 130-person capacity. Decorated in a rustic-chic aesthetic with burlap, mason jars, and sweet signs, all couples need to do is show up for their big day or change out what they want. Whitehead said, “Couples that get married here tell me that it’s fun and it’s easy because I have so many decorations for them to use that it makes it simple.” The venue has an onsite bridal suite, groom saloon, DJ booth, dance floor, outdoor bar, catering kitchen, and food service area. The ceremony space is an open-sky chapel with doors for a grand entrance, wooden benches, and string lights.


IN THE ZONE

“I like to pick in the morning before anyone gets here. I usually come out at about 7:00 and pick some to eat for breakfast,” said Jacqueline. “It’s calming. It’s quiet. You can just get in the zone.”


Some 8,000-10,000 people each year seek out the same calming appeal of what Jacqueline calls a “simple, back to basics” activity at the family farm. “I think people have lost the ability to be outside. […] People come out here, and they’re just amazed because they’ve never been on a farm in their whole life.” The Winter Haven blueberry farm is popular for school field trips, homeschool groups, church outings, and team building. Jacqueline enjoys providing a learning experience for all who come to U-pick, especially children. “It’s a way to do something fun with your kids that teaches them. People like the fact that their kids learn that blueberries don’t come from a box in Publix,” she said.


U-PICK TIPS AND ETIQUETTE

  • Wear a hat and sunscreen to avoid sunburn

  • Wear long sleeves and pants to avoid getting scratched by the blueberry bushes

  • Keep your children with you at all times

  • Respect the farm and blueberry bushes. Don’t rip branches or throw berries on the ground

  • Pick one berry at a time and only pick ones that are ripe A sample in the field is fine, but don’t eat your fill – that’s not so much sampling as it is stealing



Whitehead’s Blueberry

Farm 1020 Macon Road, Winter Haven

Phone(call/text): 863-860-4575

Open first Wednesday in April to Mid-May for U-pick!

Hours: Wednesday-Sunday- 8:00am - 6:00pm

Tours by appointment

FB @whiteheadsblueberryfarm

IG @whiteheadfarm



BLUEBERRIES IN THE BACKYARD

Are you interested in growing your own blueberries? Homeowners can make use of the “Blueberry Gardener’s Guide” fact sheet by UF/IFAS Extension at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/ MG359. If you have any questions about growing blueberries in Polk County, call the UF/IFAS Plant Clinic (863) 519-1057.


Residential Horticulture Extension Agent for the UF/IFAS Extension of Polk County, Anne Yasalonis, had an excellent tip for readers. “If you have the right place in your yard to grow blueberries in the ground, they make gorgeous shrubs/ hedges!” Check out this photo of Bok Tower Gardens making use of blueberry bushes in this way, courtesy of Anne Yasalonis.



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