Blueberry Production Up In Spite of Environmental Obstacles
by CHERYL ROGERS
Environmental challenges shed some Florida blueberry growers’ hopes for an abundant crop this year, slashing anticipated yields statewide by about 30 percent. But overall, about 20 million pounds of blueberries were picked, up from about 19 million pounds in 2017, says Brittany Lee, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.
Pricing preserved some profit. “Some growers had wonderful yields, what they were expecting. Others lost between 20-70 percent production,” she says, “It was really site specific.”
Generally speaking, the northern areas were more severely affected by pollination issues and the pest, gall midge. The south experienced more damage from the September storm.
Farmers reported large flower blooms, but the fruit dropped off. “Everyone expected the volume in Florida to be so high,” says Kyle Hill, farm manager of Southern Hill Farms south of Clermont and owner of H & C Harvesting, a mechanical harvesting firm. “It was much lower than expected.”
On the shipping side, news was good: blueberries were bringing in $4.50 a pound, reports his brother Michael Hill, general manager/owner of H & A Farms, a packinghouse that distributed about four millions pounds of fruit this year. “If you can’t make money doing that, you’re not doing something right,” he says.
Freezing Georgia temperatures helped keep up the demand for Florida berries. “All in all, it was a good year because of Georgia,” he explains. “We didn’t have any real depressed pricing. We didn’t have any $8 a pound pricing like we used to have, but those days are over because of Mexico [foreign trade].”
Blueberries have become a more popular crop in Central Florida in recent years as citrus growers seek to diversify. Growers sell their berries during a marketing window from March through May, when ideally the price is high because they are the only suppliers of fresh berries. Increased pressure from competition, most notably from Mexico, has made it tougher to profit.
Conventional blueberry shipments were up 2.7 percent this year, increasing from 477 to 490 truckloads at 40,000 pounds, says Dan Sleep, Bureau Chief of Strategic Development at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Marketing and Development. Organic blueberry shipments were down from 16 to 14 this year.
The average cash value of the state’s blueberry crop averaged $71 million between 2010 and 2016, according to the bureau’s Florida Crop Highlight – Blueberries report in April. In 2016, the latest year listed in the report, the crop was valued at $53.7 million, with a total economic impact of $139.4 million. It ranked 11th that year in market share in the United States.
Bobby Barben, owner/manager at Barben Farms in the Avon Park area, reported production was 35 percent off at the farm, where he has 85 acres of blueberries. Some varieties did better than others. “We had some damage and I’m not sure what the culprit actually was,” he says. “I think some of it was hurricane related.”
Ultimately, a warm January and cold February had an effect. “I don’t think we got the pollination that we needed,” he says. Pricing also was down as well.
“The season was challenging in different ways,” says Chuck Allison, owner of Wild Goose Farms in Umatilla, which has some 120 acres of blueberries. “We had good production this year, with good chill hours, but some varieties performed better than others.”
“Market pricing going into April and May was depressed due to Georgia’s expectations of a large crop that did not materialize,” he adds.
A shortage of labor has been a perennial problem for some, which has helped give rise to mechanical harvesting. It can cut harvesting costs from about $1.20 per pound to 15 to 20 cents per pound.
Kyle Hill says they’ve been using mechanical harvesting four or five years on their farm with 40 acres of conventional blueberries. This year they began offering the service to others. “Not all growers are on board,” he acknowledges. “The ones that are really have benefited from it.”
While some would relegate mechanical harvesting to berries destined for processing, Hill says picking fruit for the fresh market isn’t a problem. Pack-out rates vary from 86 to 93 percent, with 93 percent being close to a hand-picking rate.
Choosing varieties most suitable for machine harvesting, and training them early for the machine harvester, determines the success level. “You want to have a skinny base to where the fruit that comes off the bush doesn’t come through the [machine’s] cracks,” he explains.
Typically farmers are more likely to use a mechanical harvester at the end of the season, when hand picking is less cost effective. “The price actually went up at the end of the season, which was very very unusual,” he says. “It was bad for machine business, but great for the farm.”
Farmers were doing what they could to boost effectiveness. Some sold directly to the public through u-pick operations. “Really u-pick is all about location, location, location,” points out Mike Hill, whose wife Brooke, sister Rachael Criswell and mother Lisa run u-pick. “It’s definitely been something that has worked.”
Allison began testing hoop houses, or grow tunnels, which has the advantage of higher yields, higher densities and organic growing.
“Every year it’s going to be more and more challenging, with Mexico especially,” Kyle Hill says. “They are bringing more and more volume into our window.”
“Mexico is a problem that is not going to go away,” Barben adds. “I think it’s just something we’re going to have to be able to compete with.”
Barben’s staying optimistic. “I believe we have some big challenges ahead of us. As long as we stay committed we will end up successful,” he says. “There’s a market for Florida fruit. As long as we are able to get a decent price for our berries, we’re going to stay in it,” he says
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