Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Cooking

Innovation, timing create sweet spot for Florida blueberries

In the early years of Florida's foray into growing blueberries, there were a lot of naysayers. We were a citrus state, a tomato state, a strawberry state.

But the area of blueberries harvested in the state has roughly tripled over the last 10 years, and this year's crop is likely to reach 25 million pounds, with a harvest season that fits fairly tidily in between those of Chile and Georgia. Michigan, the nation's leader in cultivated blueberries, produced 87 million pounds in 2012. In 2013, Chile exported 174 million pounds of blueberries, most of them to the United States.

And while this year's season is about a week late to start due to a higher number of overcast winter days, the harvest is expected to be strong, with lots of fruit and prices that hit the sweet spot, making the berries both affordable for consumers and lucrative for growers. Prices for this year's crop have not been set yet, but traditionally consumers pay more at the beginning of the season.

And who is responsible for Florida blueberries' nearly meteoric rise as a crop? That would be scientists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Plant Innovation Program. It is estimated that 98 percent of the southern highbush blueberries grown in Florida are from cultivars developed at UF.

"I can't overemphasize the importance of the UF breeding program in making this possible," said Alto Straughn, who started farming blueberries more than 30 years ago and now grows 15 to 18 percent of Florida's crop. He says that in the early years of Florida blueberries, farmers had disease problems, pollination problems, soil problems, water quality problems and yield problems.

"The bottom line is the new varieties are better, bigger, tastier and with a better yield," Straughn says of recent UF cultivars like the Emerald or the Jewel. And there are more varieties on the horizon, those that are suitable for machine harvesting.

According to Paul Lyrene, a retired blueberry breeder considered by many to be the father of the Florida blueberry industry, machine-picking blueberries is much more feasible than other Florida crops such as strawberries. And since assembling a harvest labor force is a major concern for many growers, this could contribute further to the growing blueberry industry in the state.

But there are costs. Blueberry plants must be pruned to accommodate the harvesting machines, pruning that tends to delay harvest by a week or 10 days. This is a problem because the early harvest has been one of Florida's main advantages.

These days fresh blueberries are available to consumers nearly year round, but point of origin varies: Argentina is the first of the season in November; from December to February they are from Chile; Florida usually starts in mid March and runs through June 1. After that it moves to Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey and the Pacific Northwest, where berries are picked until late September.

Many of the big blueberry players are muscling into neighboring "slots," trying to ripen berries earlier and extend the season longer in the other direction as well. UF cultivars have helped some countries effectively manipulate harvest time to maximize market share.

"Fifteen years ago the only fresh blueberries in the world in April came from Florida," said Charlie Poulton, who has grown three acres of blueberries north of Dade City since 2003. He has moved to all U-pick in recent years as larger blueberry growers have squeezed out the "little guy." These days big players like Sunny Ridge, Dole, Driscoll and Wishnatzki Farms have entered the blueberry fray.

And while demand has grown along with awareness of the fruit's health benefits, Poulton still insists that most consumers are price sensitive and will buy whatever is cheaper.

Moving forward, Lyrene sees marketing as the big challenge for Florida blueberry farmers.

"The marketing chain is so maladapted to rewarding the farmer who grows a good-tasting product," Lyrene said. "You have to have a trademarked name, and that depends totally on the imagination and the willingness of someone to do it. Not everybody starts a Microsoft or a Walmart — it takes a particular person. It can be done. Will it be done? Maybe."

Still, Straughn is bullish about the future of Florida blueberries.

"The question is, is it going to continue to expand? Yes, it is. It's the best game in town if you consider all the options out there. The potential to make money in blueberries is greater than any other crop in this state."

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter@lreiley.

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