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Florida blueberry farmers expect long harvest

LITHIA

Lyna Knight envisions a long spring. • It started early, when some of the blueberries on the bushes at Lyna Berry Farms ripened almost two weeks ahead of schedule. • Thank a mild winter, with no hard freezes in Hillsborough County, for that. • But it's the potential for a postseason bounty that has Knight's attention. • In a typical year, Florida has a monopoly on blueberries from late March until early May.

Chile's blueberry season starts winding down as temperatures rise. The blueberries in Georgia are still growing. This leaves an open window during which Florida produces the world's only blueberries.

This year, thanks to not-so-perfect conditions elsewhere, that window is expected to grow. The optimistic forecast is in direct contrast to the reality for strawberry farmers, who experienced a challenging season because of warm weather and competition from Mexico.

Experts forecast that Florida blueberry farmers could own the market until late May, taking over a stretch of almost four weeks when farmers traditionally open their fields to the public for the less lucrative u-pick.

"As farmers, we often joke about how many berries will be left at the end of the season," Knight said. "This may be the year we actually pick them all."

The success will be greatest for farms south of Interstate 4.

A February freeze damaged many of the crops in northern Florida and southern Georgia, reducing crop sizes and delaying remaining blueberries by a couple of weeks, said Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.

"I-4 was kind of the line where it didn't get too cold," he said. "As you go north, it just gets progressively worse."

Knight didn't experience much damage to the blueberries on her farms in Lithia and Fort Lonesome, but like many other Florida farmers, she has a lighter crop due to a lack of chilly nights essential to blueberry development.

"Overall, we are anticipating a good season," she said. "Unfortunately, it is based on somebody else's loss. But that's farming."

Adding to the potential success is the fact that the Chilean market wrapped up earlier than usual, Braswell said.

With fewer blueberries on the market, demand will outweigh supply, bringing market prices up for longer, he said.

It's an outlook Florida blueberry farmers need after a couple of bad years.

"The last two seasons haven't been that great for blueberries," Braswell said. "We more or less missed our market window due to weather."

In 2009, blueberries garnered $3.80 per pound. In 2010, that price dropped to $3, according to a report released by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

This year's price should be closer to the $5 per pound earned in successful years for early season berries.

Florida has about 4,500 acres of blueberries growing across the state. In Hillsborough County, farmers grew 520 acres in 2010, said Stephen Gran, an agriculture industry development manager for the county. Those crops had an estimated value of $4.5 million that year.

Blueberry acreage is expected to keep increasing in the area, according to the UF report.

Central Florida accounts for about 35 percent of the state's total blueberry acreage, the report said, and is the area with the most potential for growth because of its ideal climate.

And the popularity of blueberries is not expected to decline anytime soon.

"A lot of people didn't eat blueberries 10 years ago," Braswell said. "Now, they are part of their regular diet."

Many reasons for eating blueberries can be found in their health benefits.

Said to be a "super fruit," blueberries are rich in disease-fighting antioxidants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Even blueberry wine made with highbush blueberries — a type only grown in the Southern states — has been shown to offer more health benefits than wine made with grapes, according to a UF study.

Keel and Curley Winery in Plant City is one of the only wineries in the state producing wine with highbush blueberries.

"The study shows that the health benefits we already knew were in blueberries also transfer to the wine," said Clay Keel, the winery's venue manager. "Anytime there is something that people enjoy and then they find out it's also good for their health, they love it."

Keel and Curley makes wine out of the blueberries they have left when the market price dips, he said.

At Lyna Berry Farms, Knight hopes that dip takes longer than usual to show up. Though, an extended season can be both a blessing and a curse.

"It could help us, but it also makes for an extremely long season," she said. "Then we could face labor issues because the migrant workers want to move to the next state in line."

Florida blueberry farmers expect long harvest 03/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 1:06pm]
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