Florida is setting up for an average blueberry season but with the crops in Georgia and the Carolinas virtually destroyed by a late hard frost, Sunshine State growers may find a high market and be able to extend the harvest into May.
Buyers typically shift to crops in Georgia and the Carolinas at the start of May, even though there’s viable fruit left in Florida fields – and a lot of it.
Twenty years ago, there was virtually no commercial production of blueberries in the state of Florida, except for U-pick farms and berries grown for local markets. There were two dozen attendees at the first meeting of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association (FBGA) – now there are hundreds.
FBGA President Dudley Calfee believes there’s enough acreage in the ground (and more on the way) that Florida has a realistic chance of overtaking Georgia as the South’s top blueberry producing state annually, even with a window that’s limited to a six-week gap in the spring between the end of the Chilean crop and the start of the Georgia and South Carolina deals – usually mid-March through April
The late freeze “should make a better opportunity for us,” Calfee said. “The crop certainly looks better than last year, we had no chill last year, we got moderate to low chill this year so it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a stellar year but there’s a good crop out there. And it always depends on how much we’re able to harvest while the price stays up. So [the freeze] in other states may allow us to harvest later at higher prices. With some varieties we’re already picking small amounts right now and I’m sure we’ll be able to go through the end of April and maybe into May but that’s just a wild guess.”
Florida blueberry production has grown so much in recent years no one is even sure just how many acres there are in the ground or how much fruit the state is producing.
“It’s really tough to tell,” Calfee said. “We need to do a few things in the industry to mature. I’m working with the Florida Department of Agriculture and even some of the folks in Georgia to just try and get a crop forecast for Florida so we know what we’re going to get. I couldn’t tell you within 5 million pounds what we’re going to pick this year. I can’t put a number on it. I’ve got a number in my head but I wouldn’t dare allow it to be put in print because it’s just a gut feeling. I can’t even tell how many acres we have because we don’t even really have a reporting system in Florida. I have a feeling we’re somewhere between 6000 and 8000 acres.”
Once a data collection process is established, researchers and IT experts at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) are “ready to write the logarithms to build a crop forecast system based on automated weather data,” Calfee said. “In years past we’ve picked 25 million pounds and didn’t realize it was going to be that heavy and other years we’ve picked 16 million and sold it like it was 25 million because we didn’t realize it was going to be that light. One thing I’d like to do in my tenure as president of the association is have a crop forecast in place. It’s going to take a couple of years to build it out.”
Those are all signs of a maturing industry. Two decades ago the Florida industry consisted of U-pick farms and a few growers wondering if they could launch a Florida blueberry industry to fill the spring gap. IFAS developed new Southern highbush cultivars that need fewer chill hours, bear more fruit and most importantly produce in what had previously been a sparse window for blueberry availability. An industry was born.
With improved varieties coming from IFAS at regular intervals, over the last few seasons big players have gotten into the Florida blueberry deal in a big way, companies with well-known names like Sunny Ridge, Dole, Driscoll, California Giant and Wish Farms.
“We are seeing some big farms go in, we’re seeing some 100 acre farms, 150 acre farms going in — there are bigger farms and bigger money coming into the state,” Calfee said. “A few things need to happen and our industry will mature and there’s no reason that we can’t surpass Georgia with 26,000 acres. We start picking first at the highest price, there’s no reason we can’t expand. We’re the first ones in the nation to get fresh blueberries every year, people have been eating blueberries from Chile that have been on a boat four or five weeks. When they get fresh berries from us they were in the field three or four days ago.”