When you think of Florida fruit, oranges, grapefruit and strawberries come to mind. But blueberries?

Hundreds of small blueberry farms have opened in the Sunshine State in the past three decades, and blueberry production has increased more than tenfold in the past decade. The farmers hope to capitalize on their climate by providing fresh blueberries when their competitors in the North can't. Florida produces only a fraction of the blueberries that industry leader Michigan does, but from mid-March to mid-April, its farmers dominate the market.

"It's just unbelievable how this thing has changed," said Ken Patterson, who owns the Island Grove Farm, one of Florida's oldest blueberry farms. "Twenty years ago, when we held a Florida Blueberry Growers Association meeting we'd have 40 to 50 people at a good meeting. In November, we expect 400 people there."

Patterson, who was once a funeral director, has more than 150 acres filled with 6-foot-tall blueberry bushes in Hawthorne and nearly 200 acres of blueberries some 200 miles south in Arcadia. There are so many blueberry farms in the area just east of Gainesville that Patterson and other growers opened a 27,000-square-foot packing and distribution plant last year.

Their bushes will begin to bloom in January, and the fruit will be harvested by hand a couple of months later. Their harvest, from mid-March to mid-April, comes in a short, yet important, window for grocery stores, which strive to keep fresh blueberries on their shelves year-round. Russ Benblatt, executive marketing coordinator for Whole Foods, wrote in an email that the arrangement benefits farmers, grocers and consumers.

"This way, those sweet Florida berries can be enjoyed by our customers around the country before the season starts elsewhere," he said. "And the relationship is reciprocal; when the Florida season ends, we know that our global buyers are working with teams in other regions to make sure that berries from around the country can be enjoyed here in the summer when very little can grow in the intense Florida heat."

Florida's strawberry and tomato growers have used a similar growing season to briefly dominate the market by shipping fresh produce nationwide when most U.S. farms are dormant. Blueberries remain a much smaller crop for Florida farmers _ worth $47 million last year compared to the $362 million produced in strawberries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture _ but it's growing.

"From everything that I've seen consumer demand just continues to go up and up," said Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Farmers like Patterson say demand for blueberries has grown along with attention to its health benefits. Nutritionists say all fruits and vegetables are good for you, and some studies suggest blueberries are particularly beneficial.

Wild blueberries grew in Florida before Native Americans settled there, and the first commercial blueberry plantations in the U.S. were likely established in there in the late 1800s, said Paul Lyrene, a horticulture professor at the University of Florida. The industry declined in the 1920s when customers in northern states stopped buying the blueberries that they considered low in quality.

"Florida blueberries soon earned the reputation of being small, gritty-fleshed and lacking in flavor," Lyrene wrote in a scientific journal. Sales continued to drop during the Depression in the 1930s.

Fifty years later, University of Florida researchers began developing Florida-friendly varieties of highbush berries, the term generally used for cultivated blueberries. Wild berries, like those common in Maine, are called lowbush.

The new varieties were sweeter, tastier and more consistent in size than the berries produced earlier in Florida, Lyrene said. They were hardier _ which meant easier shipping, and most importantly, they could withstand warm weather.

By 2000, Florida farmers saw a way to diversify and take advantage of consumer demand _ although they don't ever expect to rival the big growers in Michigan, Maine and New Jersey.

Blueberries are expensive to grow, costing about $20,000 an acre to plant. And, Florida varieties produce only 4 to 5 pounds of berries per bush, while Northern bushes can yield up to 20 pounds of fruit.

Still, the season gives Florida farmers an advantage by limiting their competition, and they sell all their fruit fresh _ which commands a higher price than berries sold to be frozen or processed into juice or other foods. Dole Food Co., the world's largest producer and marketer of fresh fruit, saw enough of an opportunity there that it announced last month it was buying Florida-based Sunny Ridge Farm, one of the nation's largest fresh blueberry companies.

Florida farmers' biggest competition comes from overseas, particularly Chile. The U.S. imported more than 156 million pounds of fresh blueberries last year; nearly half were from Chile. In comparison, Florida will harvest about 20 million pounds this growing season.

But Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Grower's Association, said he's confident because Florida blueberries are delivered fresher.

"Look at the label," said Braswell, a former Delta airline pilot who now raises blueberries in central Florida. "Instead of getting a 4-week-old blueberry, you're getting a 3-day-old blueberry from Florida."

Braswell's latest project is an indicator of his peers' success: The first Florida Blueberry Festival will be held in May.

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