AVON PARK — The very first Blueberry Festival was at Rotary clubhouse, and from 1,500 to 2,000 people showed up.
“We’re going to a bigger venue,” Alice Oldham remembered saying.
So on Saturday, she and co-chair Wendy Renfro were at Donaldson Park, where several thousands of people gathered on the western shore of Lake Verona to listen to bluegrass music, watch the muffin eating contest, judge the blueberry bakeoff and buy neat stuff from 25 vendors.
Avon Park may seem an odd spot for the fourth annual blueberry festival, but they’re an emerging crop in Highlands County. Barben Farms and McCracken Farms, both in Avon Park, Hidden Creek in Sebring and Milton Farms in Frostproof are among the growers, but Dan Milton said they’ll grow anywhere in Highlands County.
The growing season at his farm is near Lake Walk-N-Water ranges from April 1 to May 15.
“We produce Emeralds,” he said, a variety with a tart large berry and sweeter extra-large berry the size of a fingertip.
“The first year, you had to get down on your knees to pick them,” he said. Now, mature bushes sprout up to feet 8 feet— too high to pick — so after harvest they’re topped at mid-waist. By the 2015 harvest, they’ll be 6 feet high again.
Originally, Milton said, the U.S. cultivated blueberries in Maine, New Jersey, Michigan, and North Carolina. Georgia was thought to be the most southern latitude.
“They stop growing after 92 degrees,” Milton said. But University of Florida researchers — the blueberry breeding group at the University Vaccinium — developed berries that can be grown south of Lake Okeechobee. By 2012, the Sunshine State’s 22 million pound blueberry crop was worth $62 million.
Watering in the middle of the day cools off plants, Milton said, but overwatering at night can lead to fungus and more dollars spent on fungicides and pesticides.
Shirley Barker of Avon Park has a trouble-free way of dealing with blueberries.
“I put frozen blueberries in the bottom of the pan. And then white cake mix on top of that, and then pour a can of Sprite on top of that. You don’t stir it, that will make it look like a cake. That’s not the idea. Bake it for 40 or 45 minutes.”
What came out of her 13-by-9 pan — Easy Blueberry Dessert — looked like a cobbler, but the crust was white and golden, except where the berries juiced up like purple lava. Her concoction would be entered in the bake-off that was to be judged at 1:30 p.m.
Money from the Rotary Club event and from an annual golf tournament educates students, sends holiday food baskets to the needy, and buys dictionaries for fourth graders who are about to take Florida Writes exam.
Need a cancer fighter? Pigment that make berries blue are the No. 1 source of anti-oxidants that consume cancer-causing free radicals.
Can’t find your car keys? Eat more blueberries, which have been demonstrated to improve memory.
Bad ticker? Blueberry compounds reduce bad cholesterol and promote cardiovascular health.
Got an infection? Blueberries fight urinary pathogens so well, they’re considered a pharmaceutical.
Can’t see? A European cousin, the bilberry, improves visual acuity.
Source: Florida Blueberry Association