IN THE GAME OF GROWING BERRIES in Central Florida, Jorge Salmeron is a switch hitter. The Plant City part-time farmer, full-time teacher, had 10 acres of blueberries in production. Now, because of a foray into blueberries and blackberries, he has devoted about three acres to a nursery that holds 100,000-plus in plant inventory to meet the needs of growers. The operation, called Blue Gold Growers, has been around since 2002 and Jorge has owned it for a year. He took over the farm from partners Wayne and Stanley Glover.
Jorge has spent many years teaching at Durant High School. He was a migrant student in his youth and now he works with migrant students as their advocate. He got into berries while still a teenager, working with a local grower starting in 1998.
His crop is well established, but the nursery is what takes up most of his time. His goal is to produce enough plants to sell to other growers, not to grow berries commercially. Blackberries are notorious for being tender and hard to ship farther than the field to the kitchen so he is concentrating on a new variety, Prime-Ark Traveler, which shows promise as a shippable crop.
Blueberries and blackberries don’t grow best in the same soil. Pine straw provides the acidity blueberries need for home gardens, but blackberries really don’t care a lot about what they’re growing in. Any old soil works for blackberries, he points out. But, it should be well-drained and preferably rich.
He uses barrels and pots to hold the young shoots and blackberry plants. And it doesn’t come cheap. “It costs $6,000 to $8,000 for an acre of barrels, but they last 10 to 15 years,” he says. An automatic system waters the young plants twice a day. And then there is fertilizing too. He is aiming to wholesale blackberry plants in one-gallon containers.
Blackberries don’t fall off the plants into a bucket for you. You need to get out there in the hot sun and pick them. That used to be a dangerous job, with thorns reaching out to shred tender arms. He observes that many new varieties are thornless. Make sure what you buy at a big box store or nursery won’t hurt you.
Blueberries are done for the year and blackberries can be harvested well into June, Jorge says. If you want to grow your own berries, you can do both on the same piece of land. Make sure the blueberry part is treated to make the soil acidic. A more mature blueberry plant can likely have berries next season, according to Salmeron. Blackberry canes are aggressive and need to be cut back after they produce fruit. Don’t stand around gawking or they can take over. University of Florida has everything you need to know posted on the Internet.
The patriarch of the Salmeron clan helps, and the youngest of the children, Gabe, at 4 1/2 years old, knows how to dig in. He has rooted three trays of cuttings, and, his dad says, he doesn’t want to stop working on his own little farm. “It’s the family that’s keeping me afloat, Jorge says.
Once the berries — either kind — are in the kitchen they don’t last long. “We eat the blueberries fresh on cereal, in ice cream, and muffins. Then we freeze the rest,” Jorge says. “The kids love them.”
Here’s a simple recipe that uses Florida blackberries:
BLACKBERRY FLUMMERY WITH GIN
2 cups blackberries
Pinch of salt
2 cups water
31/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup fine sugar, or to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons gin
Combine the blackberries, salt, and 1 1/3 cups water in a heavy pot. Simmer the berries, without stirring, 10 to 15 minutes. Dissolve the cornstarch in the rest of the water, then slowly stir into the berries. Simmer, stirring, a couple of minutes or until the mixture has texture. Remove from the heat and add the sugar, lemon juice, and gin. Taste for sugar and add more if needed. Cool. Serve in glass bowls or wine goblets with drizzles of cream.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RASPBERRIES AND BLACKBERRIES?
According to the University of Florida, “Blackberry and raspberry plants produce an aggregate fruit and are derived from many ovaries from a single flower. The major difference between blackberries and raspberries is that when blackberry fruit are consumed, the receptacle of the inflorescence (known as a torus) is also consumed. By contrast, raspberries — when picked ripe for consumption — have a hollow center since the receptacle remains on the cane.”
story by TRENT ROWE, CFAN Food Editor
portrait photos by CAITLIN HALL