Annual Blueberry Roundup: Florida growers expanding markets for blue gold

WHEN LIFE gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or so the saying goes. But what do you do when you have blemished blueberries, or your pickers leave with lots of berries still on the plants? Some blueberry growers let the public do the harvesting, but Ken Patterson has a different solution. He makes wine, blueberry wine in two forms: Kinda Dry and Sorta Sweet. “They both are selling pretty good. The sweet has outsold the dry,” says Patterson, whose wine retails for $11.99 a bottle.

As the blueberry industry continues to prosper in Florida, growers are finding new ways to capitalize on their blue gold. They are expanding their reach by selling in Singapore, luring residents to the first Florida Blueberry Festival in Brooksville, and serving niche organic markets.

“People are looking for other avenues to make additional revenues,” says Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. “The festival is one way … wine is another way.”

At the end of the season, the cost of hand picking makes picking fruit futile, but machine harvesting yields berries suitable for winemaking. “You don’t care how bad it beats the fruit up because you’re going to squeeze it anyway,” Braswell observes.

Patterson says U-pick is a good earning strategy, but that he doesn’t do it because he’s way off “the beaten track.” Instead, he has partnered with Chase Marden in the Island Grove Wine Company, a Hawthorne-based firm manufacturing blueberry and other fruit wines.

“We’ve already gone overseas because the Asians are (…) so health conscious. We have teamed up with an exporter and we’ve sent our first order of both sweet and dry to Singapore,” Patterson says. “We have another order pending — our first order into China.”

Singapore and Korea both seem to be promising markets for Florida produce, says Dan Sleep, a supervisor and senior analyst in marketing for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “The blueberry wine may prove to be highly novel and sought after. It would be icing on the cake if we could be part of the creation of a multimillion-dollar blueberry wine industry,” Sleep says.

Patterson, a board member and sponsor of the first-ever Florida Blueberry Festival, drew long lines of customers who paid to sample as many as six wines and take home a festival wine glass. “I took 5,000 glasses. We brought back 140,” he says.

The festival enrolled 120 vendors and drew an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 in its effort to promote Florida’s blueberry industry, revitalize Brooksville, and support regional service groups, says Michael Heard, the festival’s president and coordinator.

An estimated 8,000 pounds of blueberries were sold. “We’ve staked our claim as being one of Florida’s top events. We made great inroads this year, and next year will be even better,” Heard says. “It is our hope to sustain the longevity of our event to live up to the model the Strawberry Festival has set for all of us in Florida.”  

Meanwhile, higher prices for organic blueberries helped Patterson and others offset losses. With 90 acres of his 350 acres designated organic, he describes himself as the largest organic blueberry grower. “They’re getting to be more organic everything,” he says.

“Right now, it’s a good deal,” agrees Jerry Mixon, production manager for domestic farms owned by Winter Haven-based Dole Berry Company, a Dole subsidiary. He expects supplies to increase and prices to drop if demand doesn’t keep up with supply.

The 2012 blueberry crop was reportedly down by a third, with 364 shipments compared to 540 last year, Sleep reports. But some lost revenue likely was recouped through higher prices per pound. Official numbers weren’t available for the 2012 season; Braswell estimates growers received an average of $4.75 a pound.

Prices were at $3.23 per pound last year, according to preliminary U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, but Braswell says the number should be around $4. “That means a net of only 75 cents. That’s way off. I think it was more like $1.50 a pound.” The price per pound peaked at $6.40 in 2002.

Sleep applauds the efforts of the University of Florida in developing suitable cultivars. “UF did a superb job in developing a cultivar of blueberries that grows in a fairly unique period in Florida from roughly April-May,” Sleep explains. “The research went on for decades and it is now paying off.”

In-store grocery ads for blueberries climbed from 300 in 2003 to 7900 in 2011, state records show.

“We are leaps ahead from a production point of view and a revenue-generating point of view,” Mixon agrees. He calls 2012 a “decent season.” “Volumes suffered across the board at most farms. It was a good season relatively. It was an unusual season,” Mixon points out. “We were able to pick a lot longer this year.”

An unseasonably warm winter this year meant that lots of blueberry growers didn’t have enough chill hours for their crop. And for those north of Interstate 4, the weekend of February 11 brought freeze damage. Insured growers in several counties, including Polk, could file insurance claims, but Braswell says most growers don’t have insurance.

The birds were even more annoying than usual, and few fields were protected by nets. “It wouldn’t surprise me if birds took 5 to 10 percent of the crops this year,” Patterson surmises. “Some years the birds are not very bad. This year as they migrated through, they came in masses.”

“It was the worse anybody’s ever seen,” agrees Braswell. “I’ve no idea why. Bad timing. Bad luck. The birds were hungrier than normal. I don’t know.” Although a new product, Avian Control, is now available to control birds, it was too late for this year. “It’s a lot easier to repel them than to get them out once they are established,” Braswell explains.

Despite seasonal problems, the industry is blossoming nicely. USDA data shows the value of Florida’s blueberry crop climbed from $11.9 million in 2,000 to more than $69.1 million, according to last year’s preliminary figures.

“That’s very impressive. Wow,” Sleep remarks. “The new numbers are now in the $60 (million) to $70 million range, even though 2012 may take a hit. 2013 — weather being cooperative — we will see another $65 million to $75 million crop.”


article by CHERYL ROGERS

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