About 50,000 people braved the wind and the rain last weekend to attend the Brooksville Blueberry Festival at Hernando Park, a celebration of fun, family, festivity–and, of course, fruit!
The 2022 festival drew more than 40,000 guests last year and generated more than $50,000 for nonprofits that serve Hernando County.
“This year,” Coordinator Natalie Kahler said, “We’re bringing in more.” Furthermore, Kahler believes that blueberries are only one ingredient that renders the free festival such a winning event for the community. The festival originated in 2018 by Coney Island Drive Inn Owner John Lee, the Blueberry King, and is co-coordinated by Brooksville Main Street.
“Thanks to Betsy Ahrens, our vendor coordinator, we have a huge selection of vendors and types of vendors. And the vendors create handmade, handcrafted items,” she said. “And the entertainment is top-notch. We had a national act this year, Colt Ford, popular Elvis Impersonator Kenne Grube, and The Leesburg Blues Brothers Tribute Band.”
“I insist that we have The Blues Brothers every year,” Ahrens reported with a smile. “Our vendors and music acts are all high-end.” Colt Ford’s Saturday night show alone drew a crowd of 5,000 folks who braved the rain to see a country superstar who has ranked high on the Billboard charts and sold more than three million records. Then, on Sunday afternoon, the classic rock band Draw Four performed for guests who danced jubilantly before the Hernando Park-Bandshell. Parents danced with toddlers, and couples sashayed across the grass to this and other musical acts, including Conner Dirksen, Emmet Stevens Jr., Crossfire Creek, Soul Circus Cowboys, Southbound 75, and the Peyton Monarch Band.
A Kids Zone brimming with bounce houses and inflatable games provided activities for the younger set, and Stir Up The Gift – a nonprofit performing arts education agency in Hernando County – offered a full roster of student performing artists who delighted the crowd with song and dance. For the first time ever, Stir Up The Gift also hosted a Mr. and Miss Blueberry pageant at the event.
Of course, the true heart of the Blueberry Festival lies in the round azure fruit that inspired its name. “The blueberry is high in vitamins and oxidants. They’re portable, healthy, and are a part of a lot of food products, and we have a lot of local blueberry growers in Brooksville,” said Kahler.
Among the local growers selling their fruits at the festival was Margo’s Blueberry Farm, LLC. “It’s exciting to have this local support for the fruit that we grow,” said Margo’s representative Hunter McMann. “And as they shop for blueberries, people come out and enjoy the festival.”
The festival featured a blueberry pie contest and a Blueberry Lane dotted with booths selling everything from blueberry ice cream to blueberry muffins and shortcake. Kahler stated, “We allowed area nonprofit agencies to sell the blueberry foods to raise funds for their projects.”
Blueberry ice cream, prepared courtesy of Coney Island in Brooksville, was sold by staff and students at the Hernando Christian Academy, who were raising funds for their senior trip and for the school baseball team. “The kids are working for their trip and team; they’re learning to work for the things they want,” said Jennifer Higgins, senior adviser at Hernando Christian Academy. “We’re also helping with cleanup at the festival. They are so generous to help us.”
Hernando High School sold blueberry cheesecake, and the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce sold blueberry cobbler. To support a campaign that they have created to fund a massive refurbishment of their club kitchen, the Brooksville Woman’s Club operated a VIP refreshment room for event entertainers and assisted with festival parking.
“This is the chill zone,” said DeeVon Quirolo, women’s club spokesperson. “We are so grateful to the festival for giving us this opportunity.”
Also spreading the blueberry love was Hernando County Artist Renata Villemaire, whose watercolor rendering of a piece of blueberry pie adorned this year’s Blueberry Festival t-shirt. “I used my favorite shade of turquoise/blue to paint the blueberry,” said Villemaire, who also joined husband Michael in selling her watercolors at the festival. “So many people come to this festival, opening up a whole new audience for my art.”
Hernando County Sculptor Paula Keller, who offered her tropical yard art at the festival, agrees. “I’ve met so many customers at the festival,” she said. “I’m coming back next year.”
Cheryl Sackaris of Brooksville, owner of Names Unlimited macrame art, was proud to show and sell her wearable art at the Brooksville Blueberry Festival. “To be a part of this festival,” she said, “is to be a part of tradition.”