Niche Products: Local Vintners Exploit Surplus of Home-Grown Fruits

Gary Farmer hopes you’ll taste the difference between his and a growing pool of competitors.

“I’m just trying to catch a niche market,” he said. “I’m trying to make mine different.”

Having debuted his blueberry and peach wines on Friday, Farmer, 55, has joined a club of Central Florida farmers seeking to maximize profits from the increasingly risky profession of growing blueberries for the fresh market. Changing weather patterns and growing competition from Georgia and Chile are narrowing the window of time that Florida blueberries can be sold fresh at maximum profit.

Berries that once littered the ground in the aftermath of the fresh market season now are scooped up, crushed and turned into two styles of wine — semi-sweet and sweet, with a dry version to come later. Fruit from Farmer’s small stand of peach trees are transformed into a wine that exhibits a pronounced fresh-fruit flavor. It’s light in body and not cloyingly sweet.

The Winter Haven native who resides in Bartow also is prepar-ing a line of honey wine, or mead, in two varieties, one from orange blossom honey and a wildflower version. He hopes to have the products ready by mid-December, or as soon as he receives federal approval for his formula.

“It’s excellent stuff,” Far­- mer said Tuesday while showing off his new winery at 1750 Long­leaf Blvd., just off U.S. 27, about a mile or so south of State Road 60.

“We’re using spring water, honey and a little bit of yeast. It’s all natural, and it will be a light golden color.”

Fiddler’s Ridge Farms Winery will hold a grand opening celebration Nov. 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. with live music, food and, of course, plenty of free samples of Farmer’s wines. Blueberry retails for $14.95 a bottle, while the peach goes for $18.95. The honey wine will be priced the same as the blue­berry.

Farmer finds inspiration in the success of other blueberry farmers, notably Joe Keel of Plant City, whose products are sold at Publix Super Markets, Circle K, Wal-Mart and numerous restaurants and liquor shops around the state. Smaller operations, such as True Blue Winery in Davenport, sell bottles from their wineries, lending their products a hint of exclu­sivity.

Despite a growing demand for blueberry and other fruit wines, getting into the business is not as glamorous as one might suspect.

“It was more of a pain in the butt than I anticipated,” said Howard Gill, owner of True Blue. “I’m not much on red tape,” but the industry is steeped in government regulations.

Much of Gill’s 5 acres of berries end up on grocers’ shelves, but he, like many other growers, are feeling the pinch of competition, adding incentive to turn excess fruit into wine.

“I wish him luck,” Gill said of Farmer. “It’s a lot of work for what little (profit) there is.”

Farmer is no ingenue when it comes to making a living off the land. His citrus nursery business in Alturas supplies many of the state’s citrus farmers with fresh stock. But citrus greening and other diseases have taken a toll, adding tighter and more costly regulations, Farmer said.

He started growing blue­berries in 2006 as a way to diversify his operation that includes 100,000 fledgling citrus trees at any given time. Having made blueberry wine as a hobby, he decided to go commercial, investing $100,000 to get his business up and running.

The enterprise is assisted by family, including wife, Cynthia, and son, Gary Jr., with additional support from Farmer’s daughter, Sarah, 20, and 11-year-old son, Christian, along with a number of nieces.

If all goes according to plan, Fiddlers Ridge Farms will double its blueberry acreage over the next year or two.

If sales of the wine meet initial expectations, Farmer expects he’ll be buying excess berries from other farms thorughout the state.

For now, he has stocked 1,400 gallons of blueberry wine. Of that, 800 gallons have been bottled.

“We’re ready to sell,” Farmer said.

[ Eric Pera can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7528. ]