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April 17, 2020
April is traditionally blueberry harvest season in Central Florida, with crowds flocking to Plant City’s beloved regional Blueberry Festival and enjoying the sweet, luscious berries freshly picked and in all kinds of culinary and beverage concoctions.
But this year, though the fields are ripe and overflowing with berries, there is no festival, no one to pick them.
“COVID-19 has changed everything, so we’ve expanded our u-pick hours to every day of the week, to spread people out and keep them safe,” said Clay Keel, owner of the Keel family’s essential business, which includes Keel Farms, Keel & Curley Winery and Keel Farms Agrarian Ale + Cider. “What could be better than taking the whole family on a fun, food-gathering outing in the sunshine and fresh air—picking antioxidant-filled, vitamin-rich, immune-boosting blueberries?”
“It’s a win-win,” he said. “Picking is an amazing family experience, and you come home with lots of healthy fruit for snacking or family baking and maybe bring home a bottle of wine or can of cider, too.”
They have taken extra safety precautions for the u-pick experience. With their 15 acres, everyone can practice social distancing.
U-pickers can park for free at the tasting room, come inside and grab a bucket. These are sanitized with a chlorine disinfectant between uses and then lined with a plastic bag to hold the berries. Tape on the floor every six feet helps keep customers safely apart. Gloved Keel Farms employees monitor the number of people in the building and, every 15 minutes, wipe down surfaces that may have been touched. Around the farm and retail area there are hand sanitizer dispensers, hand-washing stations and full bathrooms with soap and water.
Keel is an expert in proper health-safety protocol, since he is also a medical planner. He currently is activated with the Army Reserves Medical Command, organizing hospitals being set up in response to COVID-19, like at the Javits Center in New York City.
In his absence, family-run Keel Farms continues its essential food and beverage production as Joe Keel, his father and Keel Farms’ founder, and other family members handle daily operations.
On the home front, Clay Keel’s wife, Carmen Keel, a schoolteacher, has adapted to the new norm of staying home, teaching her students virtually and helping the Keels’ own children—one a high school senior, the other a third grader—with their schoolwork.
The coronavirus pandemic has greatly impacted this family and its local, small, family-owned farm business, but “with the community out here picking, at least the berries won’t go to waste, and we can feed the chickens and keep the water on,” said Clay Keel.
Adults can participate in the Grown-up Wine Scavenger Hunt. Two empty wine bottles are hidden in the blueberry bushes every day. Winners take home a free bottle of Keel & Curley’s beloved, tropical-tasting wine made from their fresh, farm-grown fruit and bottled onsite.
U-pick is between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day at Keel Farms. From Monday through Wednesday, blueberries are pay-what-you-can for three pounds per person. Thursday through Sunday, they are $6 per pound.
Berries may be purchased already picked, too. Other produce and fresh eggs are for sale, subject to availability. And, of course, people can buy their favorite bottles of wines and cans of beer and cider.
The Keel Farms kitchen, 5210 Thonotosassa Road, opens at 11 a.m. daily (after being thoroughly cleaned and disinfected), offering its savory, pub-style options to go. Enjoy a delicious take-home lunch or dinner after an exciting day of berry picking.
For details and specials, go to www.keelfarms.com, call (813) 752-3892 or visit Keel Farms on Facebook and Instagram.