Growers grapple with unique encounters amidst a good harvest


In the business realm of blueberries, experiences vary

THIS WAS A PRETTY GOOD YEAR to be in the Florida blueberry business, industry insiders say, with fairly cooperative weather, a long season, and fair pricing. Dudley Calfee, a grower and president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, reports that the latest numbers show the state harvest at just over 25 million pounds for this year — a number that far exceeds last year’s 16.5 million and the 2013 harvest of 22 million pounds.

As with any agricultural endeavor, there’s generally some good, some bad, and some ugly. “Most growers reported that they were happy with the amount of fruit harvested this season,” Calfee says. “But, the very quick rise in volume resulted in an equally quick fall in prices.” And experiences vary depending on who’s asked and what their specific role is within the blueberry business realm.

U-PICK AND COMMERCIAL HARVESTS

John Whitehead, of Whitehead’s Blueberry Farm in Winter Haven, says his U-pick operation brought in lots of picking enthusiasts and a good income this year. But issues with brokers caused pricing problems that hurt the commercial side of his operation, he reports. “We actually did good on the U-pick,” he explains. “This year we started early and had a great turnout. Our prices were good, too.”

They did some advertising and marketing to get the word out that they were opening early. “We needed to, to get them out here,” he says. “And another advantage was that it was nice and cool in April, and that’s when we started, on the first of April.” Last year, Whitehead’s U-pick operation started May 1. “We got a month’s jump over last year, and a higher price as well,” he explains. He says he started with $4 a pound, and ended with about $3 a pound. “I’m not going to sell it for less than I can make at market,” he points out. Of the fruit sold in the market, Dudley adds, “Fruit quality was excellent and consumers enjoyed a good supply of fresh Florida Blueberries at attractive prices.”

For those looking to get quality fruit with a farm day experience, the option of choice is U-pick. “People bring their kids. They love it, the kids love it; it’s just really nice for all of them,” Whitehead adds. “The disadvantage to U-pick (for the farmer) is the long hours, and we stayed open five to six days a week, for almost 10 hours a day.”

On the other side of his business, he reports, prices were soft this year and his business and those of many of his fellow growers did not bring in the prices necessary to have a good year. “The brokers who represented us in sales — who sell to the buyers — didn’t do a good job selling this year. They really dropped the ball. They actually sold for a lot cheaper than they should have; it’s called ‘dumping the market.’ ” The experience was unpleasant, but it is one of the obstacles growers can come across in the business, according to Whitehead. “If you’re going to represent somebody, you have got to get the best prices.” He says that those brokers won’t be used again, and he will hope for better relationships next time around. Overall, the business is generally iffy in many categories. “You don’t ever know in this business,” he states. “It all comes back to weather, volume, and pricing.”

Growers are no strangers to issues coming up that can hurt their season. “It’s a tough business, I can tell you that,” he observes. “You don’t find too many atheists in agriculture.”

NEW VARIETIES

On a positive note, he is excited about new variations they can try. “They definitely sound and look promising,” he says. “We will see what happens with them.” James Olmstead, professor with Blueberry Breeding and Genetics at the University of Florida’s IFAS, says blueberries faired well this year. “In general, this was a good season for most varieties, because we had higher chill accumulation in December and early January than 2014. The chill accumulation that occurs during this period tends to make hydrogen cyanamide applications much more effective,” he explains. “On varieties that are more susceptible, I did notice more rust early in the season than typical, probably due to the cool spring and wet conditions during parts of harvest.”

There are new varieties that he believes should have an impact, but it’s too soon to see those results. “Many of the newest variety releases — Indigocrisp, Avanti, Arcadia, and Endura — are not planted heavily yet, so they have not had a big impact on the Florida market yet.”

MARKETING AND PACKING

Randy Knapp, co-managing partner of Auburndale-based Five Star Family Growers, reports a solid season. “The good news is, the fruit came in earlier this year than it did last year,” he states.

“The fruit started getting blue and ripening up earlier this year for us than last year,” he continues, “when it hit, it fast and hard on March 3.”

A real plus for their operation, Knapp says, was the excellent relationship they have with their marketing partner, Alpine Fresh. Good relationships all around made a strong positive difference for Five Star, according to Knapp. “Our outside grower base did a superb job in providing our weekly estimates, which allowed efficient marketing and that gets them sold — keeps our fruit moving right on through packing.”

“The weekly estimates are big, because if your outside grower base misjudges the harvest estimate, it really puts your marketers in a bind, because they are selling daily. It is so meaningful, and such an integral part of the selling process to have good estimates from the growers. That really helped in a big way.”

In terms of pricing, the end results were a little lower this year than last, Knapp reports. “Our peak did not hit what it did last year, when we were in the $8.30 range,” he elaborates. “This year, we were at about $6.63 per pound at the peak.” Calfee, speaking on behalf of the FBGA, agrees, “Overall, most growers were satisfied with this Florida blueberry season, but would have liked to have seen higher prices realized for the larger volume of fruit they produced this year.”

“As a farmer, you always want more money,” he says. “You always want to get top dollar. And our growers all provided just top-quality fruit. “We had a good season,” he concludes. “We had a very good season. It really exceeded our projections.”

ORGANIC CROPS

Charles Counter, a grower of organic blueberries for Uncle Matt’s, has no complaints about his 2015 season. “The big difference between this season and last was that we had more weeks in the market with average pricing, which enabled us to move the majority of our crop,” he states.
Compared to the previous season, that was great. “Last year, we probably left 20 percent of the crop on the bush,” Counter recalls. “We had good, quality berries, but when the market leaves it leaves.” By comparison, “this year, the market held strong for us. We were able to start early and finish late, and we did well.”

As those in the business of farming know all too well, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in the next season — but those who spoke with Central Florida Ag News state that they are hoping for more good luck, and a strong harvest in the coming year. Whitehead, of Whitehead’s Blueberry Farm, put it this way: “Every market has their challenges, and if you’re going to be in this business, you have to be willing to accept those or you’re not going to make it.”

CREDIT

article by MARY TOOTHMAN