Harvest time: Organic blueberry growers battle odds in niche market

Seventy-one-year-old Benny McLean Jr.’s family used to grow citrus organically before anybody cared about organics. Before herbicides and chemical fertilizers were introduced in the mid-1960s, they sprayed with sulphur and lime. [emember_protected custom_msg=”Click here and register now to read the rest of the article!”]

So when McLean’s son, Matt, came home from college 13 years ago and suggested they run an organic farm, Uncle Matt’s Organic was born. “There wasn’t anybody doing it. It seemed like it would be a great opportunity to get into the organic area,” says McLean. “My dad assured us we were organic.”

The Clermont-based company owns and leases some 1,200-1,300 acres of organic citrus. It also markets fruit and offers a consulting service to help people who want to raise organic blueberries. “We make a living understanding the chemistry, physics [of organics],” says McLean, whose family is planning to grow organic blueberries south of Clermont.

Growing organic requires a commitment. “If it was easy, everybody in the state of Florida would be organic. But it’s not easy,” he says. “There’s no peer reviewed and published research that you can pull up. It’s all trial and error.” Growing organic isn’t just about the fruit, either. It’s about being a good steward of the land, says Ken Patterson, who has 90 acres of organic blueberries at Island Grove Ag Products near Gainesville. “I have to say I grow plants as fast as I’ve ever been able to grow them. The plants love it,” Patterson says. “It can be a challenge. If you do everything right, it seems to fall into place.”

He has organic fields that are four years old, two and a half years old, and one year old. He believes the problems occur because you’re getting back to the natural balance. “You just don’t flip the switch and replace all the things in the soil that have been destroyed.”

Whether you’re growing blueberries or any other organic crop, the biggest problem is weed control, McLean says. Without herbicides, it’s tough to control weeds, so organic growers rely on a commercial-grade ground cloth. “Most of the growers that we deal with … make the commitment from the get-go to put down ground cloth,” he explains. “It’s a very durable cloth. It’ll last a minimum of five years.”

Growers also need to fight a fruit fly known as Spotted Wing Drosophila, which is capable of laying its eggs in fruit before it’s ready to be picked. “On the organic side, there isn’t much to combat it,” Patterson notes. “It could be a huge factor in the expansion of the organic industry.” [emember_protected custom_msg=”Click here and register now to read the rest of the article!”]

Converting from conventional to organic is “quite a sacrifice,” says Patterson, who cleared off a pine forest to set up his farm. “You just need to find the right site.”

Patterson, who grows both organic and conventional crops, estimates it costs 10 to 15 percent more to grow organic. Returns are probably 25 to 30 percent more, he explains. It takes about $20,000-$25,000 an acre to set up growing blueberries, McLean estimates.

Much of the country’s organic blueberries are grown in California, and no official numbers on this year’s Florida organic blueberry crop are immediately available. Patterson believes the industry will continue to grow along with the conventional crop, but at a slower rate. “It is a different animal,” Patterson says. “To some degree, it’s always going to remain a niche in Florida.”



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