Florida Leads the Nation With Early Blueberry Harvest Window
by TERESA SCHIFFER
Sponsored by Farm Credit of Central Florida
Blueberries are packed full of antioxidants, essential nutrients, and fiber, landing them squarely in the “superfoods” category. The United States is the world’s top producer of blueberries. As of 2020, more than half the states in our nation were involved in blueberry production, with the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council listing 26 states as commercial producers of the crop.
Florida’s Role in Blueberry Production
While blueberries are grown across the nation, Florida is lucky enough to get the first fruit of the season. March through May belongs almost entirely to Florida when it comes to the blueberry market.
There are three varieties of blueberry grown in the U.S.: highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), rabbiteye (V. virgatum), and southern highbush blueberry (interspecific hybrids of V. virgatum, V. corymbosum, and V. darrowi). Of those, only certain cultivars of southern highbush and rabbiteye blueberries are adapted to Florida’s mild winters and are grown commercially here.
Blueberries are native to North America, making them well-suited to growing practically everywhere, but they have historically required a minimum of 300 to 500 chill hours in order to produce fruit. However, thanks to the work done by researchers at the University of Florida and Georgia since the 1990s, there are now blueberry varieties that will produce berries with 150 or fewer chill hours. This makes it possible to grow the berries as far south as Arcadia presently.
Growing blueberries in Florida can still be a gamble. There can be a high degree of variation in production costs and yields from year to year and site to site. Concerns over the blueberry maggot (Rhagoletis mendax) have spurred strict regulations on the movement of berries between Canada and the U.S. Nonetheless, there are at least 900 growers in Florida willing to take their chances and cultivate blueberries on roughly 4,400 acres throughout the state, mainly concentrated in the north central part of Florida.
Those farms employ about 2,500 individuals and create an economic impact of $295 million annually. Blueberries have been doing relatively well, with the blueberry harvest of 2022 weighing in at 21.5 million pounds.
Blueberries are in the Ericaceae family, along with cranberries, huckleberries, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Wild blueberries began being cultivated in the U.S. in the early 1900s. At least eight species of wild blueberries thrive in parts of Florida that have alkaline soils.
Florida continues to increase blueberry production throughout the state as researchers successfully develop more cultivars that can thrive farther south. Some growers are experimenting with growing the bushes under tunnels made of polyethylene. These tunnels offer greater protection from freezes, increase total yields, and allow for even earlier fruit ripening. There are drawbacks to using the tunnels, however, including initial costs and uncertainty about which specific cultivars will do best in the protective structures. They also tend to result in a longer harvest season, beginning before other blueberries in the state, and extending past the prime market window for Florida blueberries.
Historically, blueberries have been a crop harvested by hand, but machine harvesting has become more common recently. Mechanical harvesters are utilized in many fields toward the end of the season, but unpredictable fluctuations in the labor market have growers and researchers looking to develop cultivars that would be easy to mechanically harvest.