… Lovin’ life in “the middle of nowhere” …
Travel about 100 miles west of Jacksonville and a dozen miles south of Live Oak and you’ll find a place that’s just about perfect, say Jim and Beth Dukes.
The Dukes preside over about 85 acres of land in McAlpin. Much of it is pasture, but 11 acres are covered in highbush blueberries.
Although the couple have just gotten started with berries, they hope to expand to about 20 acres, Jim said.
Growing blueberries is just the latest chapter of the Dukes’ lives. They’ve raised poultry and cattle over the years, grown timber, and for a while, left farming altogether.
“We’ve been here for a couple of years now,” Jim said. “We got out of farming for a bit and realized we missed it. When we left farming, we had just sold our poultry farm in Suwannee County. We were raising pullets (chickens) for Gold Kist at that time. We got out when it was discovered that our newborn daughter was allergic to the pin feathers of the chickens.”
They family moved into a subdivision for about 18 months, and then “ran as fast as we could back to farming,” Jim explained. “It didn’t take long for us to realize we missed our privacy and being out in the middle of nowhere. We cleared the land and got started again.”
After a couple of years of hard work, the Dukes harvested their first blueberries this year. They also built a packing facility with walk-in cooler and began selling their berries through the cooperative MGB Marketing, filling a narrow market window in April.
Although Jim’s day job is a firefighter in Jacksonville, he does have farming in his blood. His father was a pioneering Florida blueberry grower in the mid to late 1970s. “I’m 44 now, and when I grew up my father, Bill Dukes, was one of the first in the state to grow rabbit eye blueberries. So I had a little bit of experience,” Jim said. “We also had some apples, nectarines and peaches, which he marketed through U-Pick operations in Clay County. He and another gentleman, Jimmy Miller, were two of the first to have some blueberry acreage in this area. I think the original Florida Blueberry Growers Association kicked in at about that time.”
Labor and frost protection are major issues
Along with growers of other crops, the Dukes are feeling the pinch of a less-than-adequate supply of workers. “We’ve already been affected by surrounding states [Alabama and Georgia] with mandatory E-Verify and a strict immigration policy,” Beth said. “The labor force travels throughout the U.S. and especially the Southeast. Those new laws are preventing — or at least making it very difficult and a hassle — for immigrant laborers to get back to Florida. Labor is scarce right now,” she said.
In North Florida, blueberry growers compete with the pine straw industry, which is at its peak when blueberry harvesting begins. Blueberries also compete with neighboring watermelon growers toward the end of the season. “I fear if we have to use E-Verify too in the near future, it will make it even more difficult for farmers,” said Jim.
Hand labor is important in the fresh market of the blueberry industry because mechanical harvesting machines can’t do the job correctly. A machine can’t tell when a berry is ripe enough to be picked or whether it’s too ripe. And the delicate-skinned fruit is easily damaged.
“There really is no machine capable of picking berries for the fresh market at this time,” Jim said. “However, there are people out there working on some machines, and I hope they perfect them soon. That would be wonderful,” he said.
“Since we’ve been farming this time around we’ve been through a designated drought disaster, a designated flood disaster and the worst freeze the industry’s seen in about 30 years. We can’t squeeze much more excitement into season number two!” – Jim Dukes
Another concern for the Dukes is what concerns every farmer: the weather.
“We rely more heavily on frost protection here than growers in the southern and central parts of the state do,” Beth said. “They might turn on their irrigation system for a five-hour freeze, but we might be running ours for a 10- or 11-hour freeze. We hope that the irrigation pump and so forth hold together for that long a period of time.”
Although frosts and freezes cause problems, they do have their flip side, Beth said. “More chill hours can help the crop. We might get more berries from it. So we’re hoping that will offset any losses.”
The couple have also experienced the extremes of flooding and drought. Recently Tropical Storm Debby brought flooding. “The whole county took a hit,” Jim said. “We’re having a few issues with our plants right now, trying to bring them through the stress of it. But that’s farming,” he said. “Since we’ve been farming this time around we’ve been through a designated drought disaster, a designated flood disaster and the worst freeze the industry’s seen in about 30 years. We can’t squeeze much more excitement into season number two!”
A learning experience
In spite of adversity, Jim and Beth deeply appreciate the lifestyle they have earned. Jim enjoys being outdoors working in the fields, and Beth finds satisfaction in home schooling their children Dustin, 13, and Gracie, 9.
They see the good in the challenges they’ve tackled. “We certainly gained a lot of experience in the past year,” Jim said. “I look at it as a positive. We’re continuing to learn how to be prepared for whatever comes our way.”
He appreciates the camaraderie in the industry as well. “We have received a lot of help from others in this industry,” he said. “People like Bill Braswell, who is the president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, and the Jimmy Miller family. They’re the ones who recommended we join FFVA,” Jim said.
“One thing I really enjoy about getting into the blueberry business is the openness and the helpfulness of everyone,” Jim said. “I call that good old-fashioned farming. And it’s nice.”