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It has been a very bad year for growing blueberries in Florida

Workers pick blueberries in the early afternoon at Keel Farms in Plant City last week. Due to a warm winter and a cold spring, farmers are late harvesting the crop. Farmers like Joe Keel, owner of Keel Farms, say the market is now saturated.
Workers pick blueberries in the early afternoon at Keel Farms in Plant City last week. Due to a warm winter and a cold spring, farmers are late harvesting the crop. Farmers like Joe Keel, owner of Keel Farms, say the market is now saturated.
Published May 16, 2016

PLANT CITY — For a few weeks each April, Central and South Florida dominate the country's blueberry supply.

During that time, hundreds of small local farmers churn out millions of pounds of blueberries for grocery stores around the country. They typically beat blueberries from other states to market and make the money they need to survive the year.

Florida farmers lost that sweet spot this year due to peculiar spring and winter weather, which delayed the blueberry harvest and forced them to compete with other states. As a result, the value of those berries plunged by more than half.

"Most people have watched or heard of the movie The Perfect Storm, that is what's going on with the blueberry season in Florida this year," said Joe Keel, owner of Keel Farms in Plant City.

It costs about $1 to pick and package a pound of berries commercially at Keel Farms, and each day Keel has been calling his broker to check the price, which continues to drop closer and closer to that $1 threshold.

"We're a day or two ahead of not making any money," he said last week, when he was getting $1.25 per pound of berries.

By the first of the year, Lithia blueberry farmer Lyna Knight knew that it would be a rough harvest.

Blueberry bushes grow best when the temperature drops below 45 degrees in the winter months, but this November and December were too warm. In January and February, farmers want the mercury to rise so that they have fruit in early April. That didn't happen either.

"If everything lines up perfectly everyone has an opportunity to supply the demand," Knight said. "The demand in the U.S. was far exceeding the supply but there was no fruit. Now there's plenty of fruit but no market for it."

Because of the late harvest, Florida farmers are now competing with those in Georgia, Mexico and California, said Stephen Gran, the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension director for Hillsborough County.

"We're usually out by now," he said. "The production is later and the volume isn't as high as it would be if we had adequate chill hours."

Last year, Lyna Berry Farms produced 223,000 pounds of berries, Knight said. This year that figure has plunged to less than 60,000 and the loss in revenue will likely prevent the farm from expanding this year.

The farm was able to harvest commercially for a few days, but the price fell so low Knight quickly opened up to the public. For her farm, the revenue from public pickers is nominal.

"They may put gas in my truck but it's very little income," she said.

Blueberry farms play a small role in Florida's agriculture industry, but can be very profitable.

The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences developed a more efficient variety of blueberry bushes in the early 1990s. Though there were only about 70 acres of blueberries in Hillsborough County in the late '90s, that number surged to 600 acres by 2012.

"It really didn't start taking off until about 2005. That's when we jumped up to about 300 acres and it's been kind of a steady increase since then," said Gran.

Just between 2007 and 2014, Florida saw annual production more than double from 7.8 million pounds from over 2,600 acres to 20.4 million pounds from 4,300 acres, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. The state ranked eighth in the nation in blueberry production in 2014.

Farmers like Keel say the market is now saturated, making it harder than ever to make money, and this year's production debacle could put some smaller farms out of business.

"It's going to be tough to make mortgage payments and to feed your family," Keel said. "We get one shot at it and then we've got to wait until next year."

That's why Keel Farms has spun off a winery and brewery that make blueberry wine, beer and other products, he said.

"I'm just thankful that I've got other things going on to make a living," he said.

Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.