Finding a silver lining amidst the blue factors


Blueberry profits down after some of the crop misses the marketing window

Florida’s blueberry production dropped this year after an unseasonably warm December followed by a cool and cloudy spring that delayed the crop. Although growers lost profits during the state’s lucrative spring marketing window, some benefited from u-pick, organics, and marketers who stuck with the Florida crop.

“It was a challenging season weather wise,” says Dudley Calfee, president of the 500-member Florida Blueberry Growers Association (FBGA). “Most of the growers are down 20 to 50 percent.”

“This season really knocked the wind out of a lot of growers,” agrees Bill Braswell, the past FBGA president, suggesting some smaller growers “may throw in the towel.”

The good news is that three new low chill cultivars that mature early are moving towards release in the fall or spring, with the first plants likely to be available to growers in fall 2015, reports Dr. Jim Olmstead, an assistant professor in Horticultural Sciences at University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville.

“They are a really good addition to the very low chill varieties that are available to Central Florida and the areas farther south,” he elaborates. “I think the consumers will like them.”

Blue Factor: Timing
Florida’s blueberry industry has blossomed in recent years, with sales climbing from $12.2 million in 2000-01 to $69.1 million in 2010-11, according to state and national government figures.

However, U.S. Department of Agriculture Daily Movement reports show 412 trucks carrying 16.48 million pounds of blueberries were logged through May 31. That’s down from 465 trucks and 18.6 million pounds transported last year. An additional six truckloads, or 240,000 pounds, of organic blueberries were transported; no shipments of organic blueberries were logged last year.

“It’s a little too early to determine what the cash receipts for this year’s season will be,” says Daniel Taylor, a marketing specialist with Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Marketing and Development. “According to the 2013 Florida Agriculture by the Numbers, last year’s cash receipts for Florida blueberries was $62,073,000.”

Like all farmers, blueberry growers are dependent upon favorable weather conditions. Fruit must have the proper number of chill hours, as well as heat units. Because the crop is wedged between the Chilean and Georgia crops, timing is important for pickers and marketers who may quickly turn to the higher volume Georgia crop. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to pick the Florida berries solely for commercial sale. Some growers, like Clermont’s Blueberry Hill Farm turn to u-pick and we-pick.

“We ended up making money at a time when we normally wouldn’t,” says Anna Adams DeLoach, who handled u-pick at the farm along with her husband Roy. The farm is run by Richard Adams, John Adams, and John Gray and also offers organic, which was a “big draw.”

Although organics is a small segment of the market, there’s been a steady increase in demand, says Ken Patterson, owner/manager of Island Grove Ag Products in Hawthorne and Arcadia. Patterson grows 90 acres of organic blueberries and 260 acres of conventional blueberries. “More and more people are becoming in tune with that,” he explains.

Blueberry harvests are difficult to forecast, which is part of the challenge. “We just don’t have enough history with our varieties to know what we’re going to produce every year,” Braswell explains.

That can make timing tricky for marketers trying to unload Florida fruit before competitors glut the market. This year prices were dropping with no fruit in the market. “That never made any sense,” Braswell says. “Usually when you have a low volume you have high prices.”

Promotional prices set up in advance had to be honored, although the anticipated glut of fruit did not materialize. “The timing of the promotions was horrible,” says Braswell, who owns the Auburndale-based Berry Care consulting and caretaking firm. “Growers have to address this problem.”

At Winter Haven’s West Lake Produce, they like to give growers a price at the dock so they know the price they’re getting beforehand, says salesman Matt Sumner. Getting it right is a matter of knowing the industry and “a lot of luck,” he says.

“You got six weeks. It’s such a brief window. If you don’t really nail it right, you don’t get a second chance,” he explains. “Mother nature’s always got the last laugh.”

Growers with early fruit fared best. “Fortunately, we kind of guessed on the right side,” Sumner adds. “The guys who were able to harvest in that window did extremely well.” Sumner believes the grower benefits when marketers like West Lake Produce represent various growing regions, because they represent more berries and share information.

The Bartow-based Clear Springs Farms had a good year, and still was picking in early June. “We’ve continued to pick long after most of the companies have quit, mostly because we don’t have a Georgia deal,” explains Braswell, the farm’s manager. “We don’t need to worry about marketing Georgia fruit.” The 400-acre farm does its own marketing, and will take in additional Florida fruit next year, he adds.

Blue Factor: Weather
National Weather Service preliminary data for Tampa Bay shows December was unusually warm. May was unusually wet. December’s temperatures averaged 68.5 degrees, making it the fifth warmest since 1890, when they started keeping records. The warmest December, in 1931, had an average temperature of 72.3 degrees. May’s rainfall totaled 8.54 inches, making it the fourth wettest since 1890; the wettest year was 1979, when 17.64 inches were logged. Weather data also shows seven fair days in January, with 13 cloudy and 11 partly cloudy. The number of cloudy days may have contributed to problems, reports Calfee, general manager of Ferris Farms Inc. in Floral City.

Dr. Jeff Williamson, an extension specialist for blueberries at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in Gainsville, agrees most of the season’s problems were weather related. “Weather is key,” he says, adding the late start shortened the “effective marketing season. When you look at the whole state, you’re going to see weather is the predominant factor this year.”

UF varieties are at the heart of Florida’s blueberry industry. The three new varieties have been in trials in multiple locations, but Dr. Olmstead points out that they have not yet been cleared for public disclosure. They were tested between Gainesville and Arcadia, and are deemed suitable for south of Interstate 4.

“They went through trial in this year—with the warm fall and winter and then wet spring—and outperformed just about everything out there,” he says. The fruit is firm, not mushy. “One of the three is a little more tart early in the season. Other than that they all have a good blueberry flavor,” Dr. Olmstead explains.

Blue Factors: Fungal Disease and Labor
In addition to the weather, in Lake County there were hit and miss problems with birds, reports Gary England, a multi-county fruit crop UF/IFAS extension agent. “Right now we’re anticipating el niño: Wetter, cooler conditions next winter,” he cautions.

Growers also experienced problems with anthracnose, a fungal disease. “We all got hit with it,” Patterson says. “It makes the cull rates higher.” Although fungus is virtually everywhere, it typically has not been a problem. “We saw it one time 10 or 15 years ago,” says Patterson, who has been in the business for 30 years.

Some growers who tried to rush the crop with hydrogen cyanamide suffered burn. “It burns a lot of your flower buds off,” Braswell says.

While some growers experienced labor shortages because domestic workers couldn’t wait for the crop, Dole Berry Company in Haines City kept picking because of the federal H-2A worker program. “The labor was there,” reports Jerry Mixon, director of farming production for Dole’s southeast division. “In the end, it was more expensive.” Dole, which has 300 acres in Florida, 14 of them organic, is planning to use the worker program again next year.

Although the year was “full of challenges,” Mixon continues to be “cautiously optimistic” about the blueberry industry. “The silver lining to it,” he points out, “is this is the first time in a lot of years that [volume] has been a problem.”