Grove Location: Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida
UMO Grower Since: 2013
Acreage: 2 acres
Although Jeremy White hasn’t been growing organic blueberries for long, he’s on a “self-education” track that’s yielding a lot of fruit! As the Uncle Matt’s blueberry truck driver, Jeremy has been learning from other local organic blueberry growers and the Uncle Matt’s team all about the ins-and-outs of farming sustainably in Central Florida. Along with his dad and uncle, Jeremy’s two-acre farm is producing plump, delicious organic blueberries that are being sold in Publix and other fine grocers. What’s more, White family plans on expanding their blueberry operation in the coming seasons.
We recently interviewed our newest blueberry grower as –– you guessed it –– he was driving down the road in the Uncle Matt’s truck! Here’s more on Jeremy White’s story:
UMO: Did your family just recently become organic blueberry growers?
Jeremy: My uncle started growing them five or six years ago with just an acre of berries. Recently, my dad’s career was in transition, so my dad, my uncle and I decided to farm more blueberries because our family had the extra land. About that same time, my sister got a job at Uncle Matt’s, so things came together because we wanted to grow the berries organically. We started the discussion right away with Uncle Matt’s and we’re very happy we went organic.
UMO: Did you cultivate the blueberry plants organically from the beginning?
Jeremy: No, on the new field, we bought the plants from Island Grove and they had to sit in the ground for a year before they were considered organic. The land we were using had not been farmed for three years prior. New transplants must be grown in the ground without the use of synthetic pesticides or herbicides for one year before the harvest is considered organic.
UMO: What blueberry varieties do you grow?
Jeremy: We produce two varieties: Emeralds and Jewels.
UMO: Tell me about a “day in the life” of an organic blueberry grower.
Jeremy: Well, if it’s not the growing season, I wake up at about 7 a.m. and head out to walk the field. Then I look for pests and parasites. I’ll do a lot of hand weeding because, in my opinion, there aren’t a lot of organic pesticides or herbicides that work well. If I’m not tending to the weeds or the plants, I’m assessing the irrigation, making sure the plants are getting the water they need to thrive.
During the growing season, you wake up and walk the field as you harvest the ripe berries. After picking, we filter them and look for blemishes, removing any bad berries. We get them ready for pick-up and from there, they go to the packing house.
UMO: How many hours a day does it take to get all that done?
Jeremy: With our 2-acre field, we spend about 5-6 hours a day during growing season. In the off-season, we’ll take 2-3 hours a day maintaining the plants and the field.
UMO: Are your blueberry bushes in the ground or in pots?
Jeremy: Actually, our blueberry bushes are planted in raised pine bark beds. The beds are probably about 15-18 inches high.
UMO: How many blueberry plants per bed are there?
Jeremy: In the new field we have, there are approximately 42 plants per row and we have 90 rows, so that gives us about 3,600 plants. In the other field, we have roughly 2,600 more mature blueberry plants.
UMO: Were the more mature bushes planted on the original acre already organic?
Jeremy: No, we had to go through the 3-year transition process with that field once we verified in our records when we last applied a prohibitive substance. We completed that process and this year, that acre was able to be sold organic as well.
UMO: Do you come from a farming heritage or is farming blueberries something new for your family?
Jeremy: Very new. My uncle’s neighbors had been growing grapes and blueberries when they encouraged my uncle to give it a shot, which he did. I actually come from a finance background. When day trading started to slow down, I switched gears and through a confluence of events, my family and I decided to become blueberry growers.
UMO: Since growing blueberries was something new for you and your family, did you ever consider growing conventionally?
Jeremy: After talking with my uncle, it was never a question about whether we were going to be organic or conventional. The process of making the crop organic can be a little harder, but it’s worth it for the benefit of not having pesticide residues on your food or anything else that might make people sick.
UMO: Are you organic in other aspects of your life besides farming?
Jeremy: Eating whole, natural and organic foods is something I try to do every day, although I wouldn’t say it consumes me. Staying away from processed foods seems to make the most sense and isn’t hard to do if you give it a little effort.
UMO: Do you have any plans to expand your farm?
Jeremy: Yes, our goal is to use another available 4 acres on the same property, so we could grow up to about 6 acres.
UMO: When do you plan to have your expansion up and running?
Jeremy: We’re hoping to have two more acres in production by 2015.
UMO: How did you come to partner with Uncle Matt’s?
Jeremy: When my sister worked there, Uncle Matt’s had just started expanding their produce line to include more offerings besides fresh citrus. Through my sister, Uncle Matt’s connected with my uncle who was already growing organic blueberries. After initial conversations, both sides had a good feeling about it, and off we went!
UMO: How does Uncle Matt’s help you as a new blueberry grower?
Jeremy: Mr. McLean [Benny, Matt’s dad] has been very helpful in passing along his knowledge of growing plants in Florida. I feel like my learning curve has been shortened because we teamed up with partners who bring decades of growing knowledge to the table.
UMO: What’s been the greatest benefit of being an organic blueberry grower?
Jeremy: I’ll have people come up to me and tell me how good our blueberries taste and how big and fresh they are compared to the ones they see in the grocery store. It gives me a sense of satisfaction to see people like what you’ve grown and enjoy the natural goodness of our high-quality organic fruit. It’s also neat to see something that you started from scratch and built with your own hands gain distribution and end up in a store like Publix.
UMO: What do you think the biggest challenge is?
Jeremy: Combatting all the things that may hurt your field without using synthetic materials –– whether it’s a pest, like an aphid that can eat the plant, or a fungus that may go after the roots or the bark. You can’t just spray it to kill the problem. You have to find other ways to protect your crop –– like adding beneficial plants or beneficial insects that will go after the ones causing harm.
UMO: The organic approach sounds like it’s more time-consuming and expensive. What do you think?
Jeremy: I think it’s worth it. You’re doing something sustainable and not using the land just for profit without regards to the impact your farming has on the environment. If we can even have a positive impact on the environment, then I think that’s something we all should do.
UMO: Last question: Tell me about how you came to drive the Uncle Matt’s blueberry truck?
Jeremy: (laughing) When we were in talks with Uncle Matt’s, I had just stopped day-trading, so I had free time and they needed someone to make the blueberry deliveries driving the truck. I thought it would be a good experience because it would give me the opportunity to talk to other organic blueberry growers and see how they were doing it. I looked at it as an accelerated way of getting an education.
UMO: What do you actually do for Uncle Matt’s as the blueberry truck driver?
Jeremy: Basically, I drive around the state, distributing farming materials to the growers. I pick up their berries when they’re ready to pack. I take them to Haines City where our packinghouse is located. On the flip side, I’ll pick up the packaged berries and take them to our distribution centers.