Has the blue gold of Florida run dry?

| A tough 2010 harvest has blueberry growers talking |
The state of Florida has long had an enviable position as a supplier of fresh blueberries.  In early spring of this year, that prominence eroded, prompting concerns about how to keep prices high for blueberry growers.  “I think the problem is we are not a priority with marketers,” suggests Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.  “We have become a bridge between Chile and Georgia.  Both produce much larger crops than we do and we don’t represent a large income for the marketers.”  He is proposing a statewide grower’s exchange as a means of shoring up blueberry prices.  Basically, the growers would sit down and collectively agree on the “best way to get from the bush to the grocer,” Braswell adds.
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Growers could decide if they are willing to participate.  Marketers could decide if they want to market berries for the exchange.  “We still have to have a quality advantage over Chile,” Braswell asserts.  “As soon as the Florida blueberries come in, they [the retailers] know they are fresher and they’re going to last longer on the shelf.”
Braswell, who has grown blueberries for 10 years, owns farms in Auburndale and Haines City, and manages Clear Springs Farms in Bartow.  He says he proposed the idea to the Inverness-based association’s board in May and would be soliciting support through the association’s July newsletter.  Braswell expects to head the exchange initially and spend a few months researching plans and educating growers.  Although he discloses it is unlikely an exchange would be operating in time for next year’s crop.
Dave Dirkse, who works in berry procurement for the marketer Westlake Miller, says he doesn’t know if he is for or against a blueberry exchange.  Westlake Miller has its eastern corporate office in Winter Haven.  He insists that no one was to blame for the weather that reduced Florida growers’ market window.  “Everybody is responding very negatively to this year’s crop,” he claims.  “It was all caused by mother nature.  They were 30 days out of their market window.”  Dirkse, who grew blueberries for 20 years in Michigan, suggests small growers were attracted to the business because “they thought it was blue gold.”  Citing a rise in the number of growers from about 30 to 350 or 375 since the early 1990s, Dirkse questions whether there are enough people to eat all those berries.  He believes the volume has superseded the demand, especially when you consider crops from Chile, Georgia, and other areas.  “The little grower won’t be able to survive,” he predicts, whether they are in Florida, North Carolina, or “where ever.”
“In Florida, about 12 large farms make up about 75 percent of the blueberry acreage,” Braswell reports, “with the remaining 25 percent in small farms averaging five acres.”  When asked about the exchange idea, Bartow blueberry grower Benny Tew wanted more information.  “Any improvement would certainly benefit all of us,” agrees Tew, who believes too many marketers mean more competition and lower prices for farmers.  Tew likes the idea of a co-op, where growers would choose one marketer for their crops, but he’s not volunteering to organize it.  “You can’t just throw a co-op together,” he asserts, “it’s an extremely large task.”
Blueberry prices dropped this year after temperatures plummeted into the twenties in Polk County and stayed cold well into harvest time.  Late berries meant the growers lost their prime marketing window for Florida berries in early spring, resulting in lower prices and manpower shortages, because pickers left when blueberries ripened in other areas.  And then there were the birds, some who came and waited for the berries.
“I had a tremendous problem with birds,” says Alturas grower Mike Baker, explaining the birds perched on trees lining his property.  “I had to fight them off from daylight to dark every day.”  Baker, who used noisemakers like propane canons and bird bangers to ward off the migratory birds predicts, “I think they’re going to stop off every year now.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Daily Movement data shows daily shipments and crossings for Florida blueberries were only down slightly from last year, a drop from 336 to 324.  Each unit reflects 40,000 pounds.  U.S. Census data shows sales of fruits, tree nuts, and berries have climbed steadily in Polk County: from $137.9 million in 1992, to $175 million in 1997, to $217.6 million in 2002, to $304.7 million in 2007 (the latest available census figures).
A USDA report released July 7 shows 3,200 acres of cultivated blueberries were harvested in Florida in 2009, yielding 4,220 pounds per acre of berries.  Total state production was 14.1 million pounds; 13.5 million were actually utilized, all of them fresh. This represents an increase from 3,000 acres harvested in 2008 and 2,600 acres harvested in 2007.  The report also shows that, in 2009, 400,000 pounds of cultivated blueberries in Florida were unharvested and 200,000 pounds were harvested but not sold. None were reported as unharvested or unsold in the prior two years.
Braswell expects blueberry production to level off because of what he calls a “colossal disaster for Florida blueberries” this year.  He says the average price probably dropped considerably from $5.40 a pound last year.  “You just didn’t get any money,” he adds, explaining it costs nearly $3 a pound to produce the crop.  “Anything after May 5 or 7 was pretty much worthless.  Your pickers made more than you.”  Braswell speculates that established growers probably won’t get out of the business, but lower profits could discourage people from getting into the blueberry industry.  “It’s going to thin the ranks,” he says.  “I don’t think the expansion is going to continue like it has.”  He estimates 20 to 25 percent of the crop in Polk County and statewide was left on the bush.  The crop was bigger because of the cold weather.  “We had a heavy crop,” he recalls.  “Some places probably saw their production double, but double of zero is zero.”
With 30,000 blueberry plants in the ground on a 10-acre farm, Marlen Goodridge says he has no immediate plans to call it quits.  Yet he acknowledges, “If it wasn’t for the u-pick we’d be in a real bad fix.”  Although the fruit was fantastic, it wasn’t worth it to hire pickers by the time the weather was warm enough for it to ripen.  “I’m not going to pay anybody to take our berries,” Goodridge says.  He manages Shady Oak Farm in Lakeland, a half mile inside the Polk and Hillsborough County line.  If the blueberry seasons continue to be bad, he confides, “We may turn it in and sell it to a contractor and let them build a subdivision.”
Despite these problems, some in the industry remain optimistic.  “All around the year was successful.  Price vs. volume proved beneficial and resulted in modest returns,” says Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of Sunnyridge Farms in Winter Haven.  “We continue to see the volume coming out of Polk County increase and we anticipate seeing this continue in the years to come as more acreage is planted and matures.”  Sunnyridge, which operates in Haines City and several other locations in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Canada, represents more than 60 million pounds of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries a year.  This includes about 1,200 company-owned acres and 4,000 contract-growing acres.  Sunnyridge also runs 13 packing and distribution facilities.
“This year’s weather was a fluke. But competition is also increasing everywhere.  Not only in other regions, but also other countries have been aiming [at] and are beginning to hit the high price windows, like Florida’s,” Mixon shares.  “I do believe the Florida blueberry crop will be in a whole lot better position next year,” says Dirkse.  “We probably won’t see this again for 50 years.”  Supervisor and Senior Analyst with the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Division of Marketing and Development, Dan Sleep, states, “ [ . . .] the sales environment appears to be good for the future.  Certainly the freeze delayed offerings this year.”  He anticipates “a dip in cash receipts” for 2010.  “2011-2012 and 2013 are years we’ll be watching carefully to see if expansion continues,” Sleep adds.  “Bear in mind that for every 1 million dollars in cash receipts sales, we also add about 34 Florida jobs to our economy.  So their success becomes everyone’s success.”
Steady growth in Florida’s blueberry industry has been fueled by an increased demand for blueberries, which became recognized as a food for health-conscious consumers.  “The whole industry is driven by the health benefits of blueberries,” Braswell says.  “Once blueberries were discovered to be so high in antioxidants, people who had never seen a blueberry before now demanded them in droves.  That’s good for us.”  Antioxidants help the body ward off oxidating agents that cause cancer and heart disease.
Although his profits were down this year, 64-year-old Tew is planning to add three more acres of blueberries at BMB Farms, increasing it from six to nine acres.  “Don’t tell me there’s no demand,” he says, adding people were still wanting to pick berries in June after they were gone.  Yet his farm income has dropped by 70 percent since 2009, he observes, without supplying specifics.  “I know the volume of blueberries is not the problem with the market,” Tew suggests.  “I’m going to get my money back.  It’s going to take longer.  At my age, I’ve got nothing better to do.”  Tew made $2,500 on his 2,500 plants when he first got into the blueberry business about a decade ago.  The second year he made $25,000, or $10 a plant.  He quips, “There’s dang good money to be made in blueberries.”

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