A focus on water conservation
– FFVA producer member Florida Blue Farms grew out of a family’s real estate firm. After six years, it’s now on the leading edge of conservation practices with an eye toward even more progress.
Brittany Lee serves as Florida Blue’s vice president and general manager. “My parents, Dennis and Carrie Lee, established a real estate firm specializing in the acquisition, management and sale of agricultural properties,” she said, adding that the business has purchased and sold rural and agricultural properties in northern Central Florida since the mid-1970s. “In 2008 we decided to venture into the establishment of a commercial Southern Highbush blueberry operation.”
The family selected a timber tract near Gainesville that had been held by its real estate firm. After much research, the Lees discovered that the land was ideally suited for the establishment of blueberries – partly because the soil was blessed with an ideal level of organic matter and acidity thanks to the pine trees it had nurtured.
“After harvesting the pine, we had a blank slate, which allowed us to precisely plan our drainage system and field layouts,” Lee said. The family planted its first 50 acres in 2010, an additional 20 acres in 2013 and is completing half of a 40-acre expansion, which will total 110 acres in blueberry production.
The Lees are committed to conservation, sustainability and protecting natural resources. As part of this commitment, Florida Blue Farms implements the Florida Specialty Fruit and Nut Crop Operations Best Management Practices. The BMPs are a combination of practices that have been determined to be the most effective and practicable means for maintaining or improving water quality.
“Our water conservation plan is multi-faceted,” Lee said. “It includes weather stations for accurate on-site weather conditions; drip irrigation and ground cover, which reduces our irrigation needs and inputs; soil moisture monitoring; plant tissue and root growth monitoring and testing to aid us in our nutrient and herbicide application decisions. Most significantly, we have specially designed and engineered our drainage system in accordance with BMPs and conservation guidelines,” she said.
The operation’s drainage system ultimately collects water into a tailwater recovery pond. Tailwater recovery involves the collection of recoverable irrigation runoff flows and is applied to conserve irrigation water supplies and/or improve offsite water quality.
“During frost protection events the pond enables us to significantly reduce the volume of frost/freeze water from our wells and recycle up to 70 percent of our withdrawals. Our goal is to reduce the water usage by 50 percent,” Lee said. Practices such as these have helped to eliminate sinkhole development in other areas of the state where growers use irrigation to protect crops from cold temperatures.
Florida Blue Farms is a member of a grower-owned cooperative called MBG marketing, through which it packs and markets its blueberries under the grower-owned “Naturipe” brand. “Being a part of a grower-owned marketing company fits into our business plan. We enjoy being intimately involved in every aspect of our product, from its cultivation and harvest to the consumer’s plate,” Lee said.
The family also contributes to local charities to provide fresh blueberries to the community.
Lee says the family faces challenges that any other Florida blueberry farm also must navigate, including managing production to be able to harvest and deliver its fruit in the best market window, which for them is generally early April through mid-May. Another challenge is to be able to look into the future and correctly identify and cultivate varieties that may be machine-harvested. “This is still a new and emerging practice in Florida blueberries,” she said.
Lee says her favorite part of the job is working with family. Her parents are actively involved on a daily basis. Her brother, Adam, and sister, Prentiss, are becoming more involved as the operation grows. “Adam Lee is an attorney in private practice and can bring a lot of expertise in related areas, and my sister Prentiss Lee Ladkani is a former web designer and a great asset in payroll and accounting as well as data processing,” she said.
Lee makes the most of industry learning opportunities, taking that knowledge back to the farm to aid in its expansion. One valuable experience was as a member of Class IX of the Wedgworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources. The University of Florida program develops and refines leadership capabilities of leaders in Florida agriculture and natural resources.
“It is one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Lee said. “While I had spoken to other alumni about the experience, it far exceeded my expectations. I think that the WLI is much more than a leadership program focused on those in Florida’s agriculture and natural resource industries. Of course, we spent time on ag and natural resource issues, but we also focused on the cultural, economic, political and social issues that are occurring at all levels — local, state, national and international. We learned how we can increase our own leadership capacity working within these issues at all levels.”
As the farm expands, Lee intends to continue to learn, work hard and hold on to her family’s values. “Family is the heart of Florida Blue Farms,” she said. “We’re dedicated to growing healthy, good quality fruit for the consumer. As our farming operation continues to grow and expand, I look forward to cultivating a positive and viable business for our future generations.”