Decades of Hard Work by Agricultural Pioneers Made Industry What It Is Today
by HEATHER MACHOVINA
Blueberries made it from farm to table in the U.S. in 1916, when the first commercial crop of highbush blueberries was harvested and sold out of Whitesbog, NJ. While the blueberry boom continued to happen in the northern, cold climates, it was not a crop considered suitable for southern farmers at the time. It took decades of research, strong partnerships, and some key agricultural pioneers to pave the way to Florida’s blueberry industry today.
While our history began with wild blueberries in the late 1800s, it was the research and breeding work of Professor Ralph Sharpe in the 1950s that allowed our industry to flourish. Sharpe began a low-chill blueberry breeding program at the University of Florida with the goal of developing plants that could be grown in the warm Florida climate and would ripen earlier than other available varieties. Recognizing that highbush types, rather than rabbiteye types, were required to accomplish this goal, he began working to combine traits from northern highbush cultivars with the low-chill and heat-tolerant native Florida species. Professor Sharpe and team trudged through their share of difficulties, mostly due to different chromosome numbers between the species, but reached successful hybridization. In 1976, the first southern highbush blueberry cultivars were released by Sharpe and Sherman named “Sharpeblue” and “Floridablue.” Although the berries did not ripen in April as desired, these cultivars essentially paved the way for warm climate blueberry production in Florida and worldwide.
Dr. Paul Lyrene joined the University of Florida in the late 1970s to oversee the blueberry breeding program. His goal was to continue the work of his predecessors and develop a southern highbush type that would produce mature fruit during that early April window, plus increase yields per plant. Today, Dr. Lyrene has more than 30 patented blueberry varieties. His improvements continue to bring huge benefits to growers including better disease resistance, increased yields, and better quality berries that hold during shipping and on the shelf. Some of the most recognized and widely used varieties in Florida fields are “Star,” “Emerald,” and “Jewel,” originating from his breeding work.
Another huge contributor to early blueberry production in Florida, partner and friend of Dr. Lyrene and UF/IFAS, is Dr. Alto Straughn. Beginning in 1971, he was the director of Program Evaluation and Organizational Development at UF, changing the way Extensions responded to clients’ needs. He was also a successful farmer of cattle, watermelon, timber and blueberries. Leading him to work closely with the UF blueberry breeding program and Dr. Lyrene to push the Florida industry forward. Dr. Straughn instituted the industry’s move away from rabbiteye varieties to the early ripening and more profitable southern highbush varieties. His farm became the test plot for many of Dr. Lyrene’s breeding program cultivars and their partnership was instrumental in the overall success of the industry today. Dr. Straughn was the first Florida farmer to authenticate that southern highbush blueberries could be grown in large scale commercial production, and profitably. The common production practices of today like pine bark bed culture, fertigation, freeze protection methods, pollination techniques, and harvesting methods were proven to be successful for blueberries through Dr. Straughn’s efforts and close work with UF/IFAS researchers.
“These partnerships, formed early on, created not just the Florida industry,” says Bill Braswell, Polk County Commissioner and resident blueberry farmer, “but now the whole planet is growing blueberries in more temperate climates.” It was unheard of until the UF breeding program released their varieties.
In 1979, Jimmy and Vhonda Miller planted 6 acres of southern highbush blueberries and 14 acres of rabbiteye on their farm in Interlachen, FL. They saw the future in growing blueberries commercially in Florida and quickly developed relationships with Dr. Lyrene at UF/IFAS, the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association and other organizations to help lead their operation through the years. Miller Plant Nursery has become one of the most reliable sources of high-quality blueberry cultivars in Florida, including the latest releases from the University of Florida blueberry breeding program. Vhonda Miller was one of the first to start a blueberry micropropagation laboratory, allowing their operation to maintain the highest quality, disease free plants needed to keep them at the leading edge of growing technology. The work they have shared over the years in crop protection, cross pollination, and new variety analysis has been instrumental in strengthening the Florida industry. Even now, they are one of the largest and most diversified blueberry farms in the southeast.
Ken Patterson relocated to north-central Florida in 1990 but spent years as a first-generation blueberry farmer in North Georgia, growing u-pick blueberries and blackberries in the 1980s. His new farm near Hawthorne, FL was considered the most southern latitude for successful commercial production in Florida then. So, he also sought a partnership with the UF blueberry breeding program, providing sites for research, hosting field days, and providing tours for blueberry industry groups to boost the industry and spread knowledge. In 1995, Island Grove Ag Products was formed through a partnership with a separately owned blueberry farm. The newly formed company invested in a farm near Arcadia in southwest Florida, sparking the development of the new cultural practice, evergreen production. When growing bushes in an environment where hard freezes didn’t occur, they found it best to maintain the leaves that developed during the previous season through fruit maturity into the next season. Continuing some irrigation and fertilization during the winter months allowed for the potential of a long production season over months with peak periods throughout.
The Florida Blueberry Hall of Fame honored Professor Ralph Sharpe, Dr. Paul Lyrene, Dr. Alto Straughn, Jimmy Miller, and Ken Patterson in 2019 as distinguished leaders and contributors to the Florida blueberry industry.
“The inductees helped create the Florida blueberry industry,” says Ryan Atwood, current VP of Florida Blueberry Growers Association, “I am personally thankful for them as the industry supports my family.” Atwood is also the owner of Atwood Family Farms in Umatilla, where they grow southern highbush varieties.
The Florida blueberry industry has grown at a great pace because Florida growers can produce high-quality fruit earlier, when few fresh berries are available and berry prices are high. These high prices bring about more competition though, and southern highbush blueberry acreage has expanded significantly in Florida, Georgia, California, and Mexico during the last several years. Florida growers need higher yields per acre, lower production costs, and more research and development to stand their ground. The partnerships between Florida grows and UF/IFAS breeders continue to prove essential for our blueberry industry.