HOMERVILLE --In the 25 years since the first blueberry bushes were planted among palmettos on cleared timber land, Clinch County has emerged as a top producer of both southern high bush and rabbiteye berries in Southeast Georgia.

A ribbon-cutting at the 40,000-square-foot SunnyRidge berry processing and distribution center Wednesday may establish Clinch County as the Blueberry Capital of Georgia. Owner Gerald Mixon told the gathered crowd of citizens, dignitaries and growers that by 2008, SunnyRidge hoped to have 2,160 acres of blueberries and 207 acres of blackberries growing in the rich, organic soil that has produced slash pine trees for decades. The center will employ as many as 50 people, Mixon said.

Mixon said that the influx of berries will not decrease the profit margin of established growers.

"The demand for quality products from this area will more than outweigh the volume," he said. "The demand for blueberries and blackberries is very, very encouraging."

A family affair

SunnyRidge is still in its growth stages with only one blueberry processing line ready for the 460 acres of blueberries and 57 acres of blackberries under contract. A total of five lines will be phased in over a two year period.

SunnyRidge is a private company owned by the Mixon family, which consists of Gerald, wife Vicki, and their sons Keith, the general manager; Jerry, vice president and farm manager; and Greg, sales manager. The SunnyRidge Web site said Mixon Farms in Haines City, Fla., began growing blueberries in 1992 and started its cooling facility the following year. Today, that facility has grown into a 35,000-square-foot cooler at Orlando International Airport with the most recent additions in Winter Haven facility and Homerville. SunnyRidge has moved into the international market supplying berries from Chile, Argentina, and Guatemala.

Mixon said plans are to expand the Homerville facility into a year-round operation by storing fruit from other countries in their effort to keep fresh fruit on the market.

Grower opportunities

SunnyRidge is not the only opportunity for blueberry growers in South Georgia. Since the 1980s, Clinch County growers have belonged to the grower cooperative, Michigan Blueberry Growers Association. Efforts to begin a Georgia association failed and local growers approached the Michigan co-op in an effort to locate a market. Today, MBG has 400 member/stockholders with 100 of those growers located in Georgia. In order to be a member, the grower must have a minimum of five acres.

Derrin Wheeler, manager of the Southeast operation for MBG, which is located in Alma, said Georgia growers produced 8.4 million pounds of blueberries last year, while Michigan produced 60 million pounds.

He said it is impossible to determine what an increase in production from more than 2,100 acres will cause in the market.

"The long-term effects of increased production have yet to be seen," Wheeler said. "There is no way anybody can determine it. We won't know until it actually happens."

He said the recent publicity for blueberries as a health benefit is great and is a factor in the marketing as is the economy.

An economic boost

The opening of SunnyRidge means a boost for the struggling Clinch County economy. Adair Chambers, who served as the past Chamber of Commerce president, said this is an opportunity for people in the timber industry.

"People who have been looking for an alternative use of land for something more profitable than waning timber business," she said.

Mayor Carol Chambers said this has been a long time coming from the days when blueberries were a new venture and people like Jerry Vanerwegan, Jim Chambers and the late Jake Avriett were operating on a trial-and-error basis.

"Here we are 25 years later with a state-of-the-art facility which will further promote the blueberry industry in our community," she said. "In addition to creating 50 jobs, this will boost our related businesses."

Chambers said the project was a culmination of state and local agencies from the Department of Transportation, Department of Community Affairs, One Georgia, Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade, Georgia Power. She said Clinch County Development Authority Chairman Troy Riberon "lived and breathed" the project. Riberon said the project was an excellent job of pulling together.

"It is always wonderful to see a plan come together not only time, also on budget," he said.

To contact Tanya B. O'Berry, call 244-3400, ext. 239.

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