(June 16) HOMERVILLE, Ga. — Sunnyridge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., has broken ground on a blueberry and blackberry packinghouse and distribution center in Homerville, in response to increased production in the area.

The company’s second such facility in Georgia, slated to open April 1, will see volumes of 2 million trays of fresh blueberries and another 5 million trays of blueberries to be processed, as well as 1 million trays of blackberries, said sales manager Keith Mixon.

This increased production will mark an overall increase in the company’s volume of about 50% in the next five years, Mixon said.

This first phase of the project is aimed at the processing and distributing fresh blueberries. Phase two will further equip the company to pack for fruit processing.

RAPID GROWTH

Mixon said the facility is being built as a response to a recent large increase in planted acreage in the area that should be running in three to four years. The growth has been so rapid, in fact, that total acreage in the area should double in the next three years, Mixon said.

He said the facility will both help with the new production and consolidate existing growers and packing facilities.

“The exciting thing about Homerville is that it will give us excellent production from May 19-July 1, which is a nice window to fill for blueberries and blackberries. Eventually, it can help take care of the total capacity of the growing area,” Mixon said.

The 40,000-square-foot Homerville plant will be twice as big as Sunnyridge’s only current plant in the state, located in Baxley.

This facility is scheduled to have six forced-air chambers, which help quickly cool berries, Mixon said. Sunnyride’s other Georgia facility has just two. The company also has packing facilities in North Carolina and Florida.

POSSIBLE DOUBLING OF VOLUME

Sunnyridge, whose volume topped 2 million flats in 2002 and may even double that number this year, is Georgia’s largest blueberry grower, Mixon said. In addition to blueberries and blackberries, raspberries are another of the company’s main products.

Mixon attributed Sunnyridge’s recent growth to increases in production every year from the company’s own farms, as well as partner farms. Aside from its domestic production, the company also packs blueberries from Argentina and Chile.

Sunnyridge is testing projects aimed at improving packaging for buyers. Last June, Sunnyridge received a grant of $360,017 from the Tallahassee-based Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

One of 11 groups to receive funds from the $5 million grant, Sunnyridge has been using it for market research and increased shelf life testing, as well as promotional efforts for fresh-sealed Florida blueberry snack packs. This project, snack packs that are ready to eat right out of the container, is still being tested.

Two years ago, Sunnyridge developed a 2-pound blueberry pack and a 1-quart clamshell with an open stackable tray for better presentation.