Hurricane Irma blew across the landscape, uprooting and toppling about 100,000 blueberry bushes at Frogmore Fresh Farm, outside Dade City.
In Irma’s aftermath, the farm’s general manager, Leonard Park, knew he had a narrow window to salvage as many of the plants as possible. He also knew he didn’t have enough labor to make that happen.
An unexpected phone call from Whitney Elmore offered some hope.
Elmore is the chief executive director of the University of Florida/IFAS Pasco County Extension, in Dade City.
“She wanted to know if she could send some volunteers to help,” said Park. “I thought she meant a van with maybe 20 people.”
Elmore had bigger ideas, and put social media to work.
“This went viral,” said Elmore. “It’s been all over Facebook and Twitter.”
Pasco County, the University of Florida and the extension service worked as a team to put out the word.
On a hot, Saturday morning, about 200 volunteers drove their cars and trucks down a narrow dirt lane, off St. Joe Road, to put in a day’s work and save the blueberries.
Volunteers focused on about 23 acres of the approximately 145-acre farm. That is where the youngest blueberry plants had either been uprooted or knocked down.
Farm employees were able to put their attentions on more mature plants elsewhere.
The turnout caught Park by surprise.
“It’s heartwarming. This is a tremendous benefit to us,” he said. “This (the young plants) is the future. We’re going to keep on, keeping on.”
It was all for a good cause, said Elmore.
Frogmore Fresh Farm benefits the county’s economy. The Sigety family, which owns the farm, does charitable work in Pasco, donating to food banks and providing internships to local students, Elmore said.
“It’s about being part of the community and making it better for everyone,” she said.
About 50 students and faculty members came from UF. Two sororities also sent volunteers.
“People have driven two hours basically on a call from social media, which is really interesting,” said Kevin Folta, UF professor and chairman of the university’s horticultural sciences department.
“But, this is what we’re supposed to do as a land grant institute. It fits our mission well.”
Frogmore’s blueberries are hybrids developed through UF research. Folta said the plants produce fruit after the harvests in other countries, such as Chile.
It opens markets for Florida blueberries that might not be available, he said.
They are rooted in wood chip beds and hydrated with an irrigation system, sort of as a “big, crazy hydroponic garden,” Folta said.
“None of this would happen naturally,” he said. “It’s a system that works and brings millions of dollars to the state of Florida. Blueberry acreage is exploding.”
Elmore said Florida produces about 20 million pounds of blueberries annually, with a value of about $82 million to $100 million.
UF wasn’t alone in rounding up students to help.
Another 50 or so volunteers were from Pasco High School’s science club and student body council. There also were students from Saint Leo University, local residents, and church members.
The Salvation Army provided bottled water.
Margarita Roma, local migrant activist and executive director of Farmers Self-Help Inc., came with about 10 volunteers. Most were teenagers, wearing T-shirts in support of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Those children, often referred to as Dreamers, are undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children before age 16, and who have lived here since June 15, 2007.
“It’s good for our kids to have visibility,” she said. And, good to show that they can help the community they live in, she added.
Jose Pedro Lopez, 14, wanted people to know that Dreamers are like everyone else. “They should be able to live a free life,” he said.
Volunteers headed into the field, one group at a time.
In groups, volunteers carried batches of cane stakes and rolls of tape, and walked into the field.
Jim Moll, the extension service’s Florida-Friendly Landscaping program manager, gave tutorials on blueberry care.
Plants had to be stood upright, firmly replanted, and wrapped with tape to keep foliage from drooping.
“It doesn’t have to be a pretty knot, just effective,” Moll said. “You want it tight, but, not too firm. You don’t want to cut off circulation.”
Moll felt optimistic.
The plants “will be traumatized from being whipped in the wind,” he said. “The good news is they are all green. They aren’t limping.”
Samantha Acacio, 21, bent down to tie a knot around a blueberry plant. She felt a connection to the environment, as she worked to put the plants upright.
“These (plants) produce oxygen,” said Acacio, a pre-med student at Saint Leo University. “Why not have more oxygen in the world? It’s motivation. They weathered the storm, and we’re going to help them stand upright.”
Wesley Chapel residents Maleena Newcomb, 14, Allie Black, 14, and Ana Anderson, 24, might have been volunteering at an annual coastal cleanup, if not for Irma.
But, they were happy to find themselves being useful at the farm instead.
“It’s a good effort,” said Black. “You get community service hours. It’s all good.”
Gayle Womer and her daughter, Jenny Konow, attend First Baptist Church in Dade City. Konow is a 4-H leader.
Konow said they had some experience with blueberry plants. “We’re small hobby farmers,” she said. “We kind of know the struggles if you need help.”
But, it was her 11-year-old son, Archer Konow, who told his family that they had to volunteer. He loves everything about farming.
“It’s good to help people after hard things come through,” he said. If it’s a business, he added, “You need to help out.”
Roney Webster, 17, is a Pasco High senior. He volunteered around his community to help neighbors with cleanup.
This was one more chance to help.
“It’s just giving back,” Webster said. “I’ve been outside pretty much every day helping people.”
Published September 27, 2017