Meet the Growers: Gant Lake Farms John Drawdy and Kelly Drawdy Pearce
When brother and sister John Drawdy and Kelly Drawdy Pearce inherited farmland near Webster, Florida, they knew they had been entrusted with a family legacy. The land nestled amongst the gorgeous live oak trees had been farmed by their family since the 1850s; everything from grass-fed cattle to vegetable farming to citrus groves. Like generations before them, John and Kelly grew up on this farmland, spending their childhood days learning to be caretakers of the land.
When the time came for John and Kelly to manage the farm, they had both received degrees from the University of Florida: John in Accounting and Ag Economics and Kelly in Food Science and Human Nutrition. Kelly pursued graduate studies, completing her Master’s degree in Nutrition from Auburn University. With a desire to nurture the land, their educational backgrounds enabled them to grow what they call “a perfect crop for our farm: organic blueberries.
Today, Gant Lake Farm is overflowing with organic blueberry bushes that grow amongst the oaks where cattle once grazed and oranges once grew, yet the traditions of caring for the land remain the same. Driven by a two-fold belief that healthy soil produces healthy berries, and that healthy, nutritious food is the foundation for overall wellness, the family uniquely utilizes their professional and educational backgrounds to grow delicious varieties of plump, nutritious blueberries with just the right amount of sweetness.
John and Kelly believe in the old Southern axiom, “the family that works together, stays together,” and they keep their values alive as they share a passion for growing organic blueberries which, in their own words, “are grown as close to nature as you can get.”
Grove Location: Webster, Florida in Sumter County (about an hour northwest of Orlando)
Acreage: Almost 20 acres
Uncle Matt’s Grower Since: 2012
UM: How long have you been an organic blueberry grower?
KELLY: We just started the farm last year and we began it as an organic farm. We have not produced any berries that were not organic. Even the cows that we have are grass-fed, but we just haven’t gotten them certified organic. We’re passionate about organic.
UM: How did you cultivate the plants organically from the beginning?
JOHN: We took blueberry cuttings from another organic farm, cultivated them in a greenhouse, and grew them in a mixture of pine bark and peat moss. From there, we transplanted them to a gallon pot and then they went into the ground after about a year of being in the pot.
UM: How many varieties do you have and what are they?
JOHN: We have five varieties: Jewels, Prima Donnas, Windsors, Spring Highs and Emeralds. The Prima Donnas and Spring Highs are the early season fruit and the others come in midway through the season which begin in mid- March and runs through May.
UM: Are you hands-on in the fields?
JOHN: Kelly lives in Alabama and comes down from time to time and for picking season. I would say I’m out in the fields every day. I check the bushes and fruit. I look for disease and monitor the weed situation. When it’s weed-pulling time, I supervise the crew. There’s a day-to-day aspect of ensuring that the plants have water and nutrition they need to thrive.
UM: You come from a family of growers, but never blueberries. How did that transition come about?
KELLY: When we started this farm, it had been about 10 years since the land had been farmed, but before that, we always had cows and orange groves before they froze. We also grew different types of vegetables, like green beans or zucchini, but this blueberry endeavor is the biggest thing we’ve done with the land agriculturally in a long time.
JOHN: Yes, our family had been in Florida citrus and cattle before we ventured into blueberries. We’re probably what you would call true “Florida Crackers.” Since the 1950s, the cattle business has been growing, and even though our cattle aren’t certified organic, they aren’t given hormones or antibiotics because I feel that everything that’s put into an animal or on your crop affects your health once you eat it. On the produce side, we knew we wanted to grow a crop on this piece of land. We did our research and saw the demand for blueberries. My sister was adamant about doing it organically, so I said, “you do the paperwork and get it set up, and I’ll do the growing.” So it was a natural progression, especially with her educational background.
UM: Speaking of that, Kelly, you hold a Master’s Degree in Nutrition from Auburn University. How do you feel your educational background complements what you do as a grower?
KELLY: Through studying nutrition, I definitely believe that organic food is safer and more nutritious. Growing organically eliminates the use of synthetic chemicals that are so freely added to our crops today, while replenishing the soil naturally. The better the soil, the better the fruit crop is, both in taste and in nutritional value.
UM: Do you have a desire to share your passion for organic with others?
KELLY: In fact, I do. Ultimately, I see myself as an organic advocate to the public, or involved in a role for organic advocacy with the government.
UM: John, how about you? What is the organic philosophy you live by?
JOHN: Here’s what I tell people: If you eat the skin of it or eat the flesh, buy it organic. Fifty or sixty years ago, everything was farmed organically by default, but now, crops are grown so fast to get them to market as fast as possible so farmers put as much fertilizer and pesticides on the crops as they can to achieve that goal. On the other hand, if you farm organically, not only is it better for you, but you are helping the soil and making it a better piece of property long-term.
UM: How did you come to first hear about Uncle Matt’s Organic and come to partner with us?
JOHN: I had already known about Uncle Matt’s because I had been drinking the orange juice and apple juice, which is my favorite, for years. (The apple juice really needs to be in every store. I drive from Leesburg to Orlando [an hour and 15 minute drive] just to get it at Whole Foods.) Through a mutual business friend, I found out that Uncle Matt’s was looking for organic blueberries. I made the call and it just seemed like a perfect match from the beginning.
UM: Do you have plans to expand your farm?
JOHN: We’ve got about 20 more acres we can expand on because the rest of it is wooded and a natural habitat for deer and turkeys and quail. We’d like to do some more blueberries. We’re also looking at organic peaches or other organic vegetables like zucchini. Currently, we’re putting in a well to be ready for our expansion.
UM: What’s your greatest reward as an organic blueberry grower?
KELLY: Knowing that the land that we’re growing on is being benefited, as well as knowing that we’re offering a product that is nutritious and healthy.
JOHN: It’s watching my son out in the fields pick a bunch of unwashed blueberries off the bush, eat them, and not have to worry about it. He’ll eat 200 of them sitting out there in one day. And he’s four!