Wiregrass Blueberry Growers Association Festival
What? Wiregrass Blueberry Growers Association’s Blueberry Festival
When? Saturday, June 21
Where? On the square in Headland
What time? Festival hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Activities? Blueberry recipe contest; baby crawl; bubble-blowing event; junior tractor pull for ages 3 to 5; hoola hoop contest; and a pie-eating contest (no hands allowed).
Information? To find out more about the festival, recipe rules and the blueberry growers association, call Peggy Smith at (334) 796-8165.
Whispering Pines Ranch produced 500 pounds of blueberries last year. Not bad, really, for its first year.
“We weren’t even supposed to get that, so we were pleased,” said Peggy Smith, whose family owns the Henry County farm.
With 10 acres of blueberries, Smith said the ranch should produce 1,000 pounds this year. But when the blueberry bushes mature, Whispering Pines could produce 8,000 pounds of blueberries per acre. Smith and her family can gauge the growth in their blueberry farm by how long it takes to pick — it took three hours to fill a bucket a few weeks ago; now it takes less than two hours to fill two buckets.
“It can be very profitable,” Smith said. “It all depends on the weather.”
Blueberries are not new to Alabama nor the United States. As a matter of fact, it’s believed native Americans actually gave pilgrims blueberries to help them get through their first winter, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
The production of blueberries seems to be gaining in popularity in the Wiregrass with more farmers dedicating time and land to the plump berries. There’s even a local festival getting its start this year. The Wiregrass Blueberry Growers Association is hosting its first blueberry festival on the square in Headland on Saturday.
Wyatt Oates and his business partner lease a 23-acre blueberry orchard, which was planted in Henry County back in 1991. It’s the third year of production for Blues Brothers Orchard.
Riding through the orchard recently, Oates stopped to give his guests a closer view of the crop. He snagged a branch full of berries with his hand.
“That’s breakfast,” he said.
The berries, he explained, start ripening around the end of May and later berries will continue to ripen into July. Oates not only delivers his berries, but he sells them at fresh produce stands around the Wiregrass — on U.S. Highway 431 North in Dothan; U.S. 84 West in Wicksburg; and at the corner of Fortner Street and the Ross Clark Circle in Dothan.
Both Smith and Oates are members of the Wiregrass Blueberry Growers Association and said they hope the festival will promote the crop. Smith said there are nearly 300 acres of blueberries planted in the Wiregrass area.
Blueberry plants grow best in acid soil. They are from the same botanical family as the azalea, mountain laurel and heather, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. They’re commercially produced in 35 states, but six states provide 90 percent of the annual crop — Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, North Carolina, Georgia and Washington.
According to the Alabama Horticulture Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, the state ranks 11th in U.S. blueberry production. For some perspective, Alabama ranks 15th in the production of watermelons and 13th in tomatoes.
More importantly, blueberries are good for you.
A cup of blueberries contains 80 fat-free calories, according to the blueberry council. They’re rich in dietary fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants that can protect against cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. They can help fight urinary tract infections, and just a half cup meets the recommended daily servings for colorful fruits and vegetables.
Blueberry bushes do well against pests and require only a drip irrigation system, Smith and Oates said.
“We have a growing industry here that’s going to be very large very fast,” Oates said.