| Season’s surprises keep Florida blueberry growers on their toes as they continue to diversify |
Florida’s blueberry crop was lighter than anticipated this year, which meant higher prices overall for the state’s blueberry growers. With gross prices averaging $5 a pound, some growers had a pretty good year; but returns were mixed. “This is the best return year we’ve had in several years on a per pound basis,” says Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association (FBGA). “Everybody just thought there was more fruit than there was.” [emember_protected custom_msg=”Click here and register now to read the rest of the article!”]
Their biggest problem was the unexpected cold weather in March. “We went from thinking we were going to have an early crop to it actually being a little behind our normal schedule,” says Braswell, who manages 410 acres for Clear Springs Blueberries in Bartow.
Although the chilly temperatures caused plants to go into dormancy with the fruit on it, there were no problems with quality. “It really threw a curve to the plants,” he states. The fruit ripened slower than normal, leaving green berries on the plants in June. “We have a massive amount of fruit that just won’t ripen,” Braswell adds.
FBGA board member Dudley Calfee, who farms in the Inverness area, says blueberries only had 40 or 50 chill hours by late December, compared to 150 to 300 hours in years past. “The blueberries really like a little more chill than that,” he observes. “We still had some pretty good yields this year.” Because they also grow strawberries at Ferris Farms on Duval Island on Lake Tsala Apopka, they usually just keep picking strawberries until the blueberries are ready. “Blueberries have been a very good crop for us,” he says.
“It was a blessed year from the competitive area,” notes Jerry Mixon, who supervises some 320 acres of blueberries for Dole Berry Company in Haines City. The blueberry crop in Chile was out early and Georgia’s harvest started late. “That’s about the best we could have asked for in Florida.” That resulted in an extra long season, up from approximately seven to 12 weeks. “That does happen, but not very often,” Mixon says.
Florida’s blueberry industry has an economic impact of $165 million, generating 2,400 jobs and $9.6 million indirect taxes, says Dan Sleep, a senior analyst and supervisor of research development/information for the Florida Department of Agriculture’s marketing division. Cash receipts have grown from $11.9 million in 2000 to $69.1 million in 2011, according to his latest available data.
“It  looks like a pretty doggone good season for them,” says Sleep. “They may see Florida production continue to rise to achieve $100 million in sales within the next three to five years.” He projects $72-$80 million in sales this year, with an estimated 18.6 million pounds of blueberries shipped, up from 14.6 million pounds last year. The acres harvested statewide climbed from 3,500 to 4,500 between 2010 and 2012, according to preliminary U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, while production grew from nearly $17.7 to $18.1 million pounds.
As demand for blueberries continues to grow, they are being marketed not only at the grocery stores but at Brooksville’s Florida Blueberry Festival, u-pick farms, and even as far as Singapore, which has been introduced to blueberry wine. “It’s expanding pretty fast,” says Ken Patterson, owner/manager of Island Grove Ag Products in the Gainesville and Arcadia. “We had two deliveries to China.” Sales are at 6,000 to 8,000 bottles a month and growing; about 2,000 bottles were sold at the Brooksville festival in a two-day period.
Here in Polk County, the True Blue Winery and Blueberry Farm — the only winery in the county— is making its own homemade blueberry wine in sweet, semi-sweet, and semi-dry varieties. Howard Gill and his wife, Fatima, are serving up the brew along with wood-fire steak, brick-oven pizza, spaghetti, and other foods at their Davenport bistro.
“If you want it, you have to come here,” says Howard Gill, who opened the winery last November. The idea kind of evolved after Fatima made five gallons of wine with a wine kit, he says. “We have had a very good response on that,” he adds. “They think it’s supposed to be made out of grapes. When they taste it, they’re very impressed with it.”
The father of four, Gill has around five acres of blueberries he’s been growing for nearly five years. The farm didn’t do well this year, in part because of the weather and in part because he is new at growing berries. He also lacks the necessary water to protect the crop from freezes. “I’m limited,” he points out. “It’s hard to get enough water to freeze them like I should.”
Labor problems have plagued the farming industry, but blueberry growers are lessening the weight of the issue through u-pick operations and mechanical harvesting for the processed berry crop. “It used to be you counted on the commercial harvest, and the u-pick was the gravy,” Braswell says. But presently, “more and more growers are depending on u-pick for a portion of their income.”
U-pick farms in the urban areas have a ready market; customers have the comfort of knowing where their food is coming from. But not all u-pick operations came out on top this season.
Marlen Goodridge, manager of Shady Oaks Farm off Knight Station Road in the Lakeland area, which is mainly a u-pick farm, says this was his worst year since he started growing blueberries in 2002. “In the past, we’ve been showing a small profit. This year we didn’t — we’ll be in the red.” His problems were weather related. Typically, overhead irrigation is used to protect the blueberry crop during a freeze. This year, he used a liquid spray on the bushes to coat them and protect them from cold, but it unfortunately washed off with “just a light sprinkle” of rain. “It would be good because you could save a lot of water,” elaborates Goodridge, who has 10 acres of blueberries. “It’s got to be dry.”
At Thomas Farms, which offers u-pick and commercial sales, manager Betty Thomas says it was the best year yet on the commercial side at their farm, near the intersection of Gerber Dairy and Bomber roads outside of Winter Haven. A couple of weeks after she and her husband, Danny, closed their u-pick, the green berries were ripening. “They re-bloomed, which is unusual,” she explains. “We have a lot of green berries. I believe with the heat and the rain they are ripening … It’s been a crazy year.”
story by CHERYL ROGERS [/emember_protected]