Up Against the Odds

Up Against the Odds

Florida Blueberry Growers Work Through Pandemic

by PAUL CATALA

In late March, blueberry farmer Bobby Barben said he wasn’t sure what to expect for the 2020 Florida blueberry growing and harvesting season but was “fine, so far.” 

But as the COVID-19 virus continues its relentless spread around the globe, across the United States and into Florida heartland, it became more evident how the March to May season had gone. 

“It turned out to be bad,” Barben says. 

Barben, who owns the 85-acre Barben Farms in Avon Park, cites the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — a modern renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement – as two of the primary reasons for a less-than-stellar blueberry harvest at his farm, which makes up part of the state’s approximately 5,000 acres of blueberries. 

“We got the majority of our labor, but the movement on products slowed way down due to grocery stores and things of that nature being shut down and people going to the grocery stores probably weren’t buying perishable items,” Barben explains. “But the big deal was they kept letting foreign fruit into the United States and whatever market was out there, they just collapsed it to where the movement in sales really fell.”

According to the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, the 2020 season yielded 17 million pounds of harvested blueberries. Brittany Lee, association executive director since August 2019, says the yield projection for 2020 was 24 to 25 million pounds based on pre-season data, but the coronavirus adversely affected that projection.

In 2019, 22.7 million pounds were harvested from Florida blueberry patches, according to Lee, who owns 86 acres just outside of Gainesville. 

“We only harvested a percent of what we should have. Seven million pounds were left unharvested due to problems associated with COVID-19. That’s a drastic reduction in sales. Retailers aren’t buying Florida fruit,” says Lee, who served as association president from 2016 to 2019. “The effects of COVID-19 started really affecting consumers. From the end of March to early April, we saw a drastic reduction of Florida fruit as a direct result of COVID-19.”

On the national level, May 22, the North American Blueberry Council in Folsom, California, filed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Notification of Funds Available process to have blueberry growers included in the Category 1 classification for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments. According to the Council’s website, the filing was in response to USDA’s decision not to include blueberries in “Category 1” payment options for growers who “had crops that suffered a 5% or greater price decline between mid-January and mid-April as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Another Florida blueberry farmer, Ryan Atwood — president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association – agrees that the coronavirus had a substantial impact on the season’s yields. The owner of Atwood Family Farms, Eustis, says COVID-19 was a “big deal” on this year’s harvest numbers. 

Atwood says the average blueberry price per pound from 2019 to 2020 was about 35 percent less. He says the problem stemmed from when stay-at-home orders were implemented around March 18, when the farm-to-retail chain was interrupted when retailers quit taking new orders; the refrigerated tractor trailers couldn’t be unloaded due to employees staying home due to coronavirus fears.

“The fruit all stacked up in the coolers around the state, you know, in all the packing houses, the marketers were putting in coolers in different places around the country and after about seven to 10 days things were kind of getting back to normal – people got over their fears and went back to work — and things were working like they’re supposed to again,” says Atwood. “By the time of increase (coronavirus), the amount of supply in the system was massive. The only way to move that supply was the marketers had to drop the price and that blew out the supply. Once they did, that price never came back.”

Backing up Lee’s numbers, Atwood adds: “The pricing for this year to previous year’s was just terrible” and some farmers had to plow their fields under. 

Atwood lives in Mount Dora and farms 56 acres of blueberries, manages an additional 350 acres and is co-owner of the largest packing house in the southeast United States.

As far as retail sales, Atwood said at the beginning of the season, there was “panic buying,” which created problems for his farm. Additionally, he says with a strong strawberry market, prices and more volume, strawberry farmers were keeping their fieldhands working. 

“My contractor is an H2A contractor, he works with strawberry farms. Well, he couldn’t come pick my crop because the strawberry prices were so strong the strawberry guys needed him,” Atwood continues. “I was scrambling to get my labor situated because the guy contracted to come pick my stuff could get to me because the strawberry market was so strong.” 

Regarding the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a modern renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, some farmers say it’s a bad deal for Florida berry growers. Under NAFTA, growers were losing to the drop in prices of berries imported from Mexico. Some blueberry farmers cite the lack of protections for specialty crops in the 25-year-old trade agreement as a reason for a decline of U.S. tomatoes about 10 years ago and blueberry growers are saying the same factor is adversely affecting Florida blueberries.

In the international market, Atwood says the Chilean strawberry season ended early, so “they were kind of out the way.” Chilean fruit, which usually comes in late, wasn’t on the market so it couldn’t crowd the Florida market on the front end. With Chile out early, the local market outlook at first looked promising until the pandemic set in.

Atwood adds prices were not higher strictly due to coronavirus, which he says created a “unique situation” in the blueberry market. 

“The corona-thing, it’s kind of like the ‘trump card’ that did everything else in. All the other factors on the marketplace didn’t really matter because the COVID just created a situation that was so unique” Atwood says. “There were so many people that were, like, ‘What do we do now?’ It just crippled it for a little while.” 

Overall, for Atwood, the 2020 blueberry season, Atwood chuckles and says, “Farming’s not easy, no matter what year it is.” Add COVID-19 to the equation and he says, “It’s really tough.” 

“I would assume you’ll see some farms going under in the Florida blueberry world. There are a lot of people who live off farm revenue; it was a really tough year for them,” he says.