Blueberries are like comedy. It's all about timing.
There's a sweet spot, after Chilean imports and before the Georgia harvest, in which Florida's southern high bush berries are not just the only game in town. They're the only game on Earth. This is not an accident. Scientists have worked with Florida growers for decades developing varieties that will ripen right when there isn't competition.
This year, they appear to have nailed it.
Growers have phased out Star and Windsor varieties in favor of Emerald, Jewel and Farthing, all in the name of harvesting at precisely when demand is high and berries from elsewhere are scarce.
And then climate change happens. Or, at least, some freakishly warm winters. Last year's season was disastrously late, according to Jeff Williamson, a blueberry extension specialist at the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Science (IFAS). Because it was too warm, with too few chill hours, flowers didn't open properly or opened late, putting Florida berries on the market at the same time as Georgia's. Prices plummeted and the total Florida yield was low.
This winter has been mild, too, but with different consequences. It was exceptionally warm, but cold enough that the flowers opened, were pollinated and then ripened quickly.
In short, it's an early season, having started near the beginning of March. And the yield is looking strong — maybe 20 million pounds, experts project.
According to Alto Straughn, who has 750 acres of blueberries in North Florida and is co-owner of 230 acres in Georgia, this year's season started 10 to 14 days early.
"We picked 100,000 pounds last week," he said. "That's unheard of. Prices are really high right now. . . . Last year everything was three to four weeks late."
And there are other factors that put Florida growers in a good position. The Georgia crop was damaged severely by late freezes this winter, the high bush crop by as much as half, says Straughn, and the rabbiteye harvest (a commercial crop that frequently becomes a frozen product) was demolished by as much as 80 percent.
So, said Williamson, Straughn and other experts, competition from Georgia will have less of an impact on the Florida blueberry industry this year. But there's plenty of other competition.
Ordinarily, Argentina is the first of the season in November, then from December to February berries come from Chile. Florida usually starts in mid-March and runs through June 1, and after that it moves to Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey and the Pacific Northwest where the last berries are picked in late September. But in the past few years, new planting in Mexico has worried Florida growers.
"Mexico is an evolving picture," said Paul Lyrene, an IFAS blueberry breeder widely considered the father of the Florida blueberry industry. "It will certainly have a bigger and bigger impact for the next decade, I would think."
The berries are grown from Guadalajara to Michoacán to Baja. Mexico has an advantage over Peru or Chile, Lyree said, in that it is closer to the North American market — you can load berries on a truck and get them here in 48 hours or less.
For now, Straughn said, Mexican berries appear mostly in the western part of the United States, but inexpensive labor makes Mexican agricultural products hard to compete with.
That's why most Florida growers are working toward machine harvesting, experimenting with varieties where the ripe berries are tickled off with hundreds of machine "fingers," but green berries stay attached for subsequent rounds of harvesting. At the same time, berries have to be disease-resistant, and they need to flower and ripen at the right time and be the right color and size. Oh, and they need to taste good. That's a complicated wish list for plant geneticists.
"The transition to mechanical harvest is the big challenge," said Lyrene. "In the last five to 10 years, the writing has been on the wall with migrant workers."
Growers are apprehensive about not having enough migrant workers to harvest, and immigration raids in the field have been a powerful disincentive for workers without legal status to show up. With a short harvest season, Florida blueberries need to be picked when they need to be picked.
Dudley Calfee, the president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, thinks machine harvesting is one of the things that will help the Florida industry to mature. But he is also advocating for a crop forecast system so that prices don't fluctuate massively. Despite doubling the amount of acres planted to blueberries in the past five years, Florida still has only between 6,000 and 8,000 acres — by comparison, Georgia has 26,000 acres, and Chile has 40,000 acres.
The great thing about Florida's season following on the heels of Chile's, said Calfee, is that consumers have been eating blueberries all winter that have languished for weeks on a boat.
"Florida's freshness in taste is wonderful. Ninety-five percent of Florida's blueberries are sold fresh, and unless there's a glut, prices should stay high," Calfee said, anticipating a long and fruitful season. "This might be one of those years where we pick every berry on the bush."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.