Pick a Peck

Local farms invite you to fill up on seasonal berries, fun by the bushel
Shelly Swanger

If summertime has you dreaming of strawberry fields forever and finding your thrills on a blueberry hill, you’re in luck. The Emerald Coast is simply bursting with berry farms. The only thing that could possibly make fresh blueberries and strawberries taste even better is when you pick them yourself. U-pick berry farms open their fields and patches to locals — beginning in the spring for blueberries and summer for strawberries — to harvest to their heart’s content.

  Sweet, fresh strawberries.

Most farms sell their sun-kissed berries by the container, from a pint to a gallon bucket, or by the pound for a fraction of what grocery stores charge. Because they are freshly harvested, your berries will provide even more health benefits. Not to mention delivering a day of fun in the sun and a memorable outdoor adventure for the entire family.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Everyone seems to be in love with strawberries. So, it comes as no surprise that the strawberry was a symbol for Venus, the Goddess of Love, because of its heart shape and red color. As far back as the 13th century, the strawberry was used as an aphrodisiac.

Strawberries were served at medieval state events, because they symbolized prosperity, peace and perfection. The most famous public eating of strawberries is perhaps at Wimbledon each year, when strawberries and cream are consumed between tennis matches by the properly attired English.

The berries are non-fat and low in calories, rich in vitamin C, potassium, folic acid, fiber and vitamin B6. Throughout history the strawberries have been used in medicines as well as for sunburn, discolored teeth, digestion and gout.

A member of the rose family, this berry is unique in that it is the only fruit with seeds — 200 of them — on the outside rather than the inside. Talk all you want about its attributes and healing powers, the real passion people have lies in eating this delicate, succulent fruit! Luckily for strawberry lovers, there is a “u-pick” strawberry farm right here on the Emerald Coast.

As the name suggests, Akers of Strawberries is an expansive farm that delivers by the bushel. The Evers family has been farming for many generations, and Akers of Strawberries is just one of their farms. Many may not realize that state Sen. Greg Evers operates it, and when the Florida Legislature is not in session he is often found in a hat and overalls on a John Deere tractor working the land himself. But his laid back personality makes him just another neighbor to the locals in Baker.

Evers opened Akers of Strawberries as a U-pick farm in 1991. Like bees to honey, families pour into the farm when it opens in the spring through the summer to fill boxes with fresh strawberries. Evan Owens, the farm manager, estimates the average person harvests about 10 pounds in less than 20 minutes. “You just grab a box and help yourself,” he says. And other than trampling the tender plants, there is only one rule. “Don’t eat the green berries!”

Strawberry lovers can escape the heat and cool off in the farm’s Yogurt Room with a frozen yogurt, sundae or milkshake, or the farm’s specialty — homemade strawberry short cake with whipped cream.

Mary Ann Blasberg has made “picking” a family tradition since the farm first opened. “The farm has come a long way, and we have very good memories there. It was a way of teaching our children the beauty of nature,” she said. For this Crestview mom the only thing better than the “free” berries the kids tucked into their tummies is the berries themselves. “They are to die for. They are that good. When you bite into them they are juicy and sweet … awesome,” she tells.

Blasberg continues her family tradition and uses her father’s recipes to reinvent her red berries into strawberry jelly, shortcake and syrup for ice cream.

 Locals and visitors venture to Akers of Strawberries between April and June to hand pick their sweet berries right off the vine. It only takes about 20 minutes to fill a box with 10 pounds of fruit. Photos by Shelly SwangerLocals and visitors venture to Akers of Strawberries between April and June to hand pick their sweet berries right off the vine. It only takes about 20 minutes to fill a box with 10 pounds of fruit. Photos by Shelly Swanger

Cooks can let their creative juices flow with recipes found in the “Akers of Strawberries Cookbook.” But to save you the suspense, don’t look for the Strawberry Shortcake recipe. It’s not in the book and won’t be on the new website either.
Fresh strawberries are just the start of the fresh produce you can fill up on at Akers. Each year Evers reserves a couple of rows and rotates crops in them depending on what mood he’s in each season. This year he plans to offer pick-your-own vine ripe tomatoes and green bell peppers. In past seasons locals have ventured to the farm to haul off fresh zipper peas, silver queen corn, blackberries and squash by the bushel.

No matter which berry you like best, make plans this summer to head to one of these local farms, so you can check off this fun family adventure from your “bucket list.”

Why A BlueBerry Makes Us Happy

Just in time for National Blueberry Month (July), we dig deep to uncover just why the nation is in love with this particular “super” fruit.

The blueberries are small but mighty. Botanists estimate blueberries burst onto the scene more than 13,000 years ago. This little berry has deep roots in our country’s history. When Europeans arrived on the continent, the Native Americans were already enjoying blueberries year-round. They dried blueberries in the sun and added them whole to soups, stews and meat, or crushed them into a powder rubbed into meat as a preservative. According to legend, Native Americans gave blueberries to the pilgrims to help them make it through their first winter as both a nutritional food and medicinal treatment to improve eyesight and help with relaxation in childbirth.

When it comes to nutrition, blueberries deserve to be at the top of the heap. They are packed with vitamin C, are a great source of fiber and are an excellent source of manganese. With just 80 calories per cup and virtually no fat, blueberries offer many noteworthy nutritional benefits. And according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), blueberries are the cream of the crop when it comes to antioxidant activity per serving.

Thanks to modern technology, fresh blueberries are now available year-round. The peak season for fresh blueberries in North America runs from mid-June to mid-August, with the earliest harvest in the South, including the Sunshine State, where two varieties are grown: southern highbush and rabbiteye.

According to Beulah Berries in Pensacola, highbush blueberries are probably the most familiar variety, because this is the most commonly sold in grocery stores. This type derives its name from its growth pattern, as these bushes are quite tall, sometimes reaching more than six feet high. They are popular because of the larger fruits, sometimes over an inch. These plants ripen four to six weeks earlier than the rabbiteye varieties. Rabbiteye blueberries are much more suited to the southern climates and are native to the Southeast. The name is deceiving since they grow taller than even the highbush blueberries and can be as high as 10 feet tall.

With an added acre this year, the Beulah Berries farm now measures seven acres. Not the biggest berry farm, but perhaps one of the friendliest. If you visit, you might find yourself on their sweeping porch in a rocking chair sipping their specialty — iced blueberry tea. Check the chalkboard on the porch for the rows that are open for picking, grab a bright yellow gallon bucket and fill it full of big, lush berries for just $10. Repellent and sunscreen are available at no charge, if you forget yours, and there’s a water cooler on the porch to refresh yourself after your labors.

In the 1920s, Crestview was bustling with blueberry business. Today, Shockley Springs Farm & Nursery, owned by Mark Davis since 1979, still picks, packs and ships its fruit to local markets within hours of being harvested.

Beginning in June, and through July, families and friends flock to Davis’ 10-acre farm for the healthy little berry with the big taste. Shockley sells berries by the pound. A gallon bucket holds five pounds. If you pick your own, you pay a buck a pound. “[Shockley Springs Blueberries] are the best around; the combination of soils and climate produce the sweetest fruit that brings our customers back again and again,” Davis contends.

There are several blueberry farms in the Baker area to choose from. Triple J Farms operated by Rodney and Melody Bolton operates on the honor system. You grab a gallon bucket and pay $10 for each you fill.

 Local families have made a family tradition out of picking strawberries and some even make it into the box. Several rows are reserved each year for a rotating vegetable crop that has included green bell peppers, tomatoes, zipper peas and silver queen corn. Photo by Shelly SwangerLocal families have made a family tradition out of picking strawberries and some even make it into the box. Several rows are reserved each year for a rotating vegetable crop that has included green bell peppers, tomatoes, zipper peas and silver queen corn. Photo by Shelly Swanger

After 42 years in the radio and television business, John Richardson was looking for something to do after he retired. He and his wife, Mary, invested in 1,500 blueberry seedlings and planted them in five of the 33 acres they have on Dairy Road in Baker.

That was six years ago. Richardson explains that it takes at least five years for blueberries to mature and bear fruit. It also takes bees to make them bloom. Because Northwest Florida has few if any bees buzzing in the area, Richardson does what many local fruit farmers do … he rents then.

“There’s a bee man from Crestview who’ll bring out four bee hives, which is about 80,000 bees,” Richardson explains. After the first bloom, the bee man returns with his hives and collects the bees until the next year. Renting bees allows Richardson to focus on his fruit crop. “I don’t want to deal with collecting the honey and all that,” he says.

This summer marks the second season John and Mary’s Berries is open to the public for U-pick berries, which are $1.50 a pound. Though the blueberry business didn’t break even last year, Richardson still considers his retirement venture a success.

“It’s a lot of work, but I love it,” he says.

Sweet Strawberry Facts

✤ 53 percent of 7- to 9-year-olds picked strawberries as their favorite fruit.
✤ Eight strawberries will provide 140 percent of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C for kids.
✤ Strawberries are the first fruit to ripen in the spring.
✤ One cup of strawberries is 55 calories.
✤ The annual Florida Strawberry Festival is held in Plant City, Fla., for 10 days in March.
✤ On average, there are 200 seeds in a strawberry.
✤ The annual per capita consumption of fresh and frozen strawberries is 4.85 pounds.
✤ Strawberries are grown in every state in the United States and every province of Canada.
✤ If all the strawberries produced in California in one year were laid berry to berry, they would go around the world 15 times.
✤ Lebanon, Oregon’s annual strawberry festival is home to the world’s largest strawberry shortcake.

Be Prepared For Your Berry Adventure

✤ Wear long pants, a lightweight long sleeved shirt and closed toe shoes.
✤ Drink plenty of water before you go, so you are well hydrated.
✤ Slather yourself with sunscreen and douse with insect repellant.
✤ Bring a cooler to keep berries chilled on the way home.
✤ Bring cash; most farms do not take credit cards.

Blueberry Storage Ideas

Freezing: Do not pre-wash your blueberries. The chalky white appearance will actually help preserve them and keep them from turning mushy.

Place the berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze them until hard (2 to 12 hours), then transfer them to a zippered freezer storage bag, being sure to squeeze as much excess air out of the bag as possible.

Drying: Following the directions of your dehydrator, the berries will take as little as 12 hours or as long as 72 hours to dry.
When dried, they will appear small, wrinkled and leathery, much like a raisin. Transfer to an air-tight storage container to keep in your pantry for cookies, hot cereals or anywhere you would use raisins.

Pick Your Own Berry Farms

Okaloosa County
Akers of Strawberries
Strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers (other seasonal produce available through the harvest season)
1054 Melton Road, Baker
(850) 537-2768

Shockley Springs Farm & Nursery
7097 Old River Road, Crestview 
(850) 902-0160

Brooks Farm
Blueberries, peaches, blackberries

1006 Melton Road, Baker
(850) 537-6433

Triple J Farms


795 Melton Road, Baker
(850) 537-4259

John and Mary’s Berries
5949 Dairy Road, Baker
(850) 537-0340
Eglin Air Force Base
Wild blueberries
Purchase an outdoor recreation pass ($12 per person), grab a map and explore several locations
to pick wild blueberries: one near Duke Field, another off Range Road 212 and 85, and a third near Kentner Pond. Be sure to call and check for road closures the day prior. Be prepared to walk a ways in the woods. (Not recommended
for small children.)
(850) 882-4164

Escambia County
Beulah Berries
6658 Suwanee Road, Pensacola
(850) 453-2383

Petsel’s Blueberries
7711 Helms Road, Pensacola
(850) 944-5224 or
(850) 292-8214
Santa Rosa County
Penton’s Strawberry Farm
8805 Highway 89, Milton
(850) 623-6586

The Arc Santa Rosa
Blueberries, blackberries, muscadine grapes
6225 Dixie Road, Milton
(850) 623-9320

Cambridge Farms
3230 Deloach Lane, Milton
(850) 855-6420

Lundy Blueberry Farm
8655 U.S. Highway 89, Milton
(850) 623-0652