Meet the Grower: Doug McCormack, Blue Bayou Farms
Grove Location: Yalaha, Florida
UM Grower Since: 2010
Just like Uncle Matt, organic blueberry grower Doug McCormack comes from a fourth generation Florida Ag family. His father started an indoor foliage nursery in 1962 in Apopka and Doug was born in 1969. Ever since he was old enough to walk, Doug was in and out of greenhouses, underneath the benches, playing with the plastic underneath the benches and looking up at the steam pipes. Soon, he got old enough to weed underneath the benches and Doug reports, “That’s when the fun stopped.”
During his school years, Doug helped out in every department of the business: plant caretaking, shipping, invoicing, growing, and more. Soon, the family moved into the outdoor ornamental business where Doug was in charge of pest and fungus identification, soil mixing and plant promulgation. In 2006, Doug made a career move and bought the land in Central Lake County that would become his future organic blueberry farm. He admits that while he didn’t know anything about produce, he would “reinvent the wheel” on how to grow blueberries organically in Florida.
Today, Doug is a successful organic blueberry grower for Uncle Matt’s and runs a Blue Bayou Farms in Yalaha, Florida. His quaint destination in Central Lake County which includes blueberry acreage, a greenhouse, a farmer’s market and a chicken barn, draws repeat customers from Orlando, and as far away as Jacksonville and Melbourne, for blueberry picking as well as delicious homemade delicacies, like pies, pickles, and jams.
Here’s more on Uncle Matt’s blueberry grower, Doug McCormack:
UM: When and why did you become an organic blueberry grower?
DOUG: We originally started the field six years ago, and we wanted to grow blueberries organically because nothing eats blueberries except big yellow grasshoppers, and you can get rid of those with your tennis shoes. So why spray? At the end of the day, why do you have to spray pesticides and fungicides? If you stay on top of it and watch your field, you don’t have to use all the preventative chemicals.
UM: So, you are very “hands-on.”
Doug: Oh, every day. I walk the field everyday for exercise and to know what’s going on out there.
UM: What are some of the things you look for?
Doug: I look for how the weed situation is, asking myself if I need to bring someone in to hand weed in between the bushes. I look for any type of nutritional deficiencies, like chlorosis of the leaf. I also check for moisture content in the soil, among other things.
UM: How did you learn how to identify the problems and assess the health of your crop?
Doug: I’m a fourth generation Floridian whose family has always been in agriculture –– from citrus groves, to indoor foliage to ornamentals, and now blueberries.
UM: So was it ever a consideration for you to farm conventionally?
Doug: No, I’ve got two little girls.
UM: What does that mean to you?
Doug: They go out there and pick the blueberries and eat them at will. And I can just say, “Go, pick, eat. I don’t care.” I don’t have to worry about what’s on them or if there is anything harmful in the field like that.
UM: It’s still cost effective for you?
Doug: Not gonna lie. It is more expensive to farm this way. But at the end of the day, the peace of mind and resurgence in the market is worth it.
UM: The state is famous for its citrus, so why Florida blueberries?
Doug: I just always wanted to grow them. I was a “U-picker.” I used to pick blueberries in Clermont, and I said to myself, “Boy, I would love to do this one day.” It seemed like such a great time for families –– kids and adults alike. So watching that experience kind of hooked me.
UM: You still have a “u-pick” season. When is that?
Doug: Oh yes, it usually starts around April 15 and runs through the end of June.
UM: Although most folks wouldn’t realize it, Central Florida is a good location to grow blueberries.
Doug: It’s the perfect area to grow blueberries in February and March because we get enough chilling hours from the colder weather. We need about 75 hours under 45 degrees and then we need it to warm up quick enough to ripen the blueberries and bring them to market before Georgia and North Carolina. For growing organically, I find it to be a perfect place. Further south or north, you’d be in trouble, as far as missing the market window.
UM: How did you first hear about Uncle Matt’s Organic?
Doug: They dropped by and saw me. Back when they were first venturing into blueberries, Matt and Steve came out and met my wife and me. She and I discussed it and she said, “they’re a class act” and we began our partnership almost immediately. And then we met Benny [Matt’s dad] –– that was the icing on the cake. It’s just nice to find a family business like where I came from. Old Florida. They understand us. And any time we need assistance, like when harvest time comes, they’re there to help.
UM: You were already organic then. You didn’t have to go through the process.
Doug: Yes, already certified.
UM: Any plans to expand into other crops?
Doug: I’m growing organic cherry tomatoes in our greenhouse and I’m hoping to expand that to a second greenhouse.
UM: Besides being an Uncle Matt’s grower, you also run the Blue Bayou Farm stand.
Doug: We started the produce stand about five years ago and we support all the local farmers around here. We know a lot of small farmers that are growing organically but can’t afford certification because they only have a small garden plot. So we will tell people, “this is grown organically, they’re not certified, but it is local.” Local is important to me. I bring in my neighbors’ bok choy, lettuce, cabbage, or carrots in limited quantities as it becomes available.
UM: What else do you sell at the stand? I walked in to the amazing smell of a fresh tomato-leek pie in the oven.
Doug: We make our own jam and jellies, as well as homemade pies. Our pickles are pretty famous too. We bring in fresh Amish cheese and butter, and sell raw milk and grass-fed beef.
UM: Aren’t you the one doing most of the baking, canning and pickling? How did you learn how do all that?
Doug: I learned from my grandmother. She used to leave church 15 minutes early and I thought, “This is my ticket to skipping out on 15 minutes of the sermon.” I’d walk home with her, but she immediately started cooking Sunday dinner. So as a 12-year-old boy I thought I was getting away with missing church, but it was actually how I learned to cook because she made me help her prepare the meal every Sunday.
UM: And the pickling too?
Doug: She did that during the cucumber season. She’d have her whole kitchen counter covered. We’d chop up the dills from Zellwood and make icicle pickles and put them in buckets on the floor. The rest of it, I taught myself about two years ago after forgetting how to do some of it from when I was a kid.
UM: And now are you teaching your kids?
Doug: Absolutely, I have two girls, 9 and 7. Around here, we’re not chasing the almighty dollar. My father passed away at 61 from colon cancer, never drank, smoked or anything. So, I’m 43 and if I’ve got 20 years left, I’m spending it right here with my kids. You can chase the dollars later. It’s not doing you any good when you’re dead. We stop and smell the roses.
UM: Do you feel like being an organic grower is a big part of it?
Doug: Oh, yes, definitely. And it’s a great experience for the kids because they can go and pick what we’re growing and sell it at the produce stand. They harvest our eggs out of the chicken coop and bring them in for us to sell fresh here everyday. The eggs at our house are never refrigerated; they’re brought in fresh everyday.
UM: How would you sum up the organic philosophy you live by?
Doug: I came from a background that said, “spray, spray, spray.” As I got older, I started asking, “Why?” My philosophy now is: try to take care of your crop naturally and see what happens. You don’t have to pour a bunch of poisonous chemicals on a crop to make it work. You can make it work other ways; it just takes more effort. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be a lot more weeding, but we’re going to do it.
UM: What do you think the payoff is?
Doug: It makes me sleep well at night. That’s about the biggest payoff you could ask for –– having a healthy family and sleeping well at night.