HOMELAND — Jack Green Jr. gazed in his pickup's rearview mirror as he drove through 400 acres of blueberry bushes he manages for Clear Springs Farms, but he doesn't look back with regrets.
Green and his father, Jack Green Sr., owned about 100 acres of citrus and a harvesting company until 10 years ago, when they planted their first 5 acres of blueberries in Zolfo Springs.
"After a couple of years with 5 acres of blueberries, we made more profit than 100 acres of citrus," Green Jr., 36, said. "After the hurricanes, we saw the handwriting on the wall."
Green was referring to the impact of four hurricanes that swept across the Florida citrus growing region in 2004 and 2005. The storms spread the bacterial disease citrus canker throughout the region. Canker lowers citrus tree fruit yields and increases production costs to keep it at bay.
The Greens sold the citrus business and became contract growers for Clear Springs Farms, part of Bartow developer Clear Springs Land Co.
Along with Bill Braswell of Auburndale, another contractor and 11-year veteran blueberry grower, the Greens help manage the Clear Springs blueberry operation, which also includes a packinghouse in Winter Haven.
Clearly, Florida blueberry growers have been riding a profitable wave for the past decade. But Braswell thinks they're rapidly approaching a crest.
"We're on the brink of that (crest) right now," he said. "This year started out with a good price, and it is rapidly deteriorating."
The Florida blueberry industry began as a niche market. From the beginning of harvest, usually in early April, to the end in May, the state's growers are the only source of fresh blueberries to the U.S. market.
That exclusive window has traditionally meant high farm prices for six to eight weeks, generating enough to sustain growers for the year.
At the start of the 2011 season, blueberry growers earned $7.50 per pound for their fruit, and it stayed above $7 for the first three weeks in April, Braswell said. The break-even price — including caretaking costs, such as irrigation, fertilizers, harvesting; packing and shipping — is about $3 per pound.
Recently, the price dropped to $4.50 per pound because large blueberry farms around the Ocala area, normally about two weeks behind in harvesting volume, came into the market, he said.
"When all it takes is one large farm (in North Florida) to come on line and see the price drop $2 a pound, that's not a stable market," Braswell said. "We get a two- to three-week jump on them. That makes all the difference in the world."
The Florida blueberry season always ended in May, when larger farms in Georgia and other states pushed the farm price below the break-even mark in Florida.
But because of competition from imports, mainly Mexico and Chile, and the boom in Florida blueberry acreage, that window has been shrinking, Braswell said.
Once it becomes unprofitable to pick them, the remaining berries will just be left to spoil on the bushes.
There's no question growers have ridden a 10-year expansion wave.
From 1992, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began collecting statistics on the Florida blueberry industry, through the end of that decade, the state's blueberry acreage hovered between 1,000 and 1,300 acres, the USDA statistics show.
Then blueberries became a superfood.
In the late 1990s, a raft of books and articles dealt with food deemed to confer substantial health benefits because they contain nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamin C, manganese and dietary fiber, all of which are found in blueberries.
From 1,400 acres in 2000, harvested acres rose to 3,500 in 2010, USDA figures show.
Per capita fresh blueberry consumption in the United States has doubled in the past three years to 22 ounces a year, Braswell said.