Solid Production Overshadowed By Falling Prices
by TERES SCHIFFER
Since the early 1990s, Florida has had the blueberry market cornered for a few precious weeks in late March and early April. During that time, Florida blueberries drew a premium price as the only blueberries available in that particular time frame. That’s starting to change now, as berries from Georgia and Mexico are flooding the market during that precious window. Florida blueberry growers are feeling the pinch.
By the end of April this year, Florida had done about 22.7 million pounds of blueberries, according to Brittany Lee, President of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. That’s the second best production year for the state. “The prices were disappointing,” says Lee. Prices started significantly lower than normal and then declined earlier than usual.
Chuck Allison, with Wild Goose Farms in Umatilla, explains that “if you look at the 2019 season, the fruit crop was better this year, because we had more chill hours. We had better chill hours than the last couple of years. That gave us better fruit set, and a pretty decent crop everywhere.”
Allison’s farm is in the northwest part of the state, and chill hours are very important to having a good crop. Wild Goose Farms had a challenging but decent season this year, with a little bit better production, but lower prices.
While production was good at most farms, prices weren’t. The beginning of the season was affected by the amount of blueberries on the market coming from Mexico, while the back end of the season was impacted by Georgia berries. Georgia had a bumper crop this year, which is great for Georgia, but that puts more pressure on Florida growers.
Kyle Hill is the Farm Manager at Southern Hill Farms in Clermont, and owner of H&C Harvesting, which harvests throughout the state. At his farm, prices were strong when the season started, but by mid-April prices were declining. Their early volume allowed them to end up with a satisfactory season. Around April 15 they turned on their harvesting machines, and they ran those through the middle of May.
“The previous two seasons were better, in terms of the market, the reason being that Georgia had freezes the last two seasons, so they really didn’t have any volume. The market actually got better as May came, which is very unusual. Mexico keeps bringing in more and more volume, so the early market is not as good as it was, but it was still fairly strong, though not as strong as previous years. It looks like it’s going to be on a steady, slight decline in years to come, with Mexico bringing in more and more volume each year,” Hill explains.
By the second week or so of the harvest season, going into Easter, the prices of blueberries were already fairly depressed. This impacted a lot of growers. About 60 to 70 percent of the Florida volume is in April, so it’s important to keep prices high at that time. However, this year, the volume of berries from Georgia and Mexico in the market channels made those prices drop more quickly than normal. Due to these factors, Florida is losing its edge on the early blueberry crops.
Another issue that Florida blueberry growers are facing is the cost of labor. “A lot of growers are switching over to more H-2A labor,” says Allison. H-2A is a worker visa program. It’s a more complex system with rigid regulations and limited flexibility. “It becomes a challenge to manage a fixed amount of workers with limited flexibility,” adds Allison. Higher labor and harvesting costs are increasing the overhead for Florida growers.
“You have a perishable commodity and you have to get it harvested in a timely manner,” says Allison. So not only are labor costs rising for Florida growers, but they are competing with other countries who do not have the same high labor costs. The fixed rate of the H-2A workers is a higher cost than that of hiring domestic workers. It can be difficult to get the number of workers needed and the assurance that they will be there from domestic workers. The H-2A workers provide a more stable and reliable workforce, though the cost is higher.
The Florida blueberry industry is likely in for some challenging times ahead. It’s going to be important for farms to be growing the right varieties of berries. Earlier varieties will probably continue to do well, although there will still be pressures from other states and countries, and high labor costs. Allison feels it’s important for growers to update their varieties. His farm grows nine different varieties, and they are updating some of their older varieties to the newer ones.
At Hill’s farm, it costs around $1.10 per pound to pick the blueberries by hand, then add to that another dollar for the packing charge. That means that the berries have to sell for at least $2.20 per pound to break even, and with the market getting tighter and tighter that becomes more of a challenge. Machine harvesting makes it possible to pick those berries for a much lower price than by hand. Hill looks to be doing more harvesting by machine in the future in order to keep harvesting prices down.
“In the past we’ve experienced growth and stability,” Lee states, “but the last couple of years have not been particularly good years for a lot of Florida producers. That, coupled with the massive increase of Mexican fruit makes for a difficult future.” Mexican production has risen from 1.8 million pounds of fruit in March through May 2010 to almost 54 million pounds this year in the same timeframe.
Worldwide blueberry demand isn’t as strong as it was a few years ago, and more states and countries are getting in the game. While Florida used to have a monopoly on early-season fruit, that’s all changing. The survival of the state’s blueberry industry is going to depend on farmers’ ability to adapt, and that’s nothing new for the resilient Florida blueberry growers.