Twenty years ago, there was virtually no commercial production of blueberries in the state of Florida, save for U-pick farms and berries grown for local markets. This year, some experts say that Florida’s blueberry production may reach 18 million pounds, although more conservative estimates place the total between 13 million and 15 million pounds.
That is still just half the average of leading states in fresh-category production like Michigan (49 millionpounds in 2009 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and New Jersey (45 million pounds) but closing in on other renowned blueberry states like North Carolina (25.5 million pounds) and Georgia, California and Oregon (23 million pounds each).
And Florida’s totals are growing every year, a trend that seems sure to continue for the foreseeable future.
All of Florida’s blueberry production is for the fresh market, with 80 percent shipped out of state. U-pick blueberry farms are scattered throughout north, north-central and northwest Florida. Blueberries for commercial fresh shipping are grown in three major areas of the state. The north-central area includes Alachua, Marion and Putnam counties and accounts for about 40 percent of the state’s blueberry acreage, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences. The south-central area includes Highlands and Hardee counties and comprises about 25 percent of the total acreage.
The newest production area is in central Florida and includes Polk, Orange, Lake and Hillsborough counties. This new area accounts for about 35 percent of total acreage, and IFAS experts said that it may hold the most promise for the future: Southern Highbush blueberries thrive in the same conditions strawberries do, and Hillsborough County is home to 90 percent of U.S. winter strawberry production.
Blueberry production has exploded in Florida due to new varieties from IFAS that need fewer chill hours and bear more fruit. Consumer demand has continued to increase as well. And Florida growers bring the first fresh blueberries of the calendar year to the U.S. market, with a six-week window of market exclusivity.
Chilean production begins in November and ramps up until January. “By the beginning of February, they’re peaked out, by March what’s left they put in controlled atmosphere, then put it on ships to get it up here,” said Ken Patterson of Island Grove Ag Products near Ocala, FL, one of the state’s main producers. “They know what the April market is like here. We have a big target painted on us. The Chileans succeed to some degree, but we can beat them with quality. Where we never had any competition early on, we have the Chileans now to some degree, but by mid-April they’re 100 percent gone. Even by late March, there’s not a lot of it and it’s bad quality, so some buyers push them aside as soon as Florida starts producing. Our window is really about the third week of March to about May 15.”
Jack Cain of Westlake Produce Co. in Winter Haven, FL, said, “It’s all about the window. The Florida market depends on what Chile does at the tail end of the deal and how long Georgia and North Carolina stay on the sideline. Cold weather in California is going to keep them at bay this season, and Oregon is having some really cold weather which is going to hurt them on their start time. I think we might have a good season this year based on what’s happening elsewhere. Price-wise, last year we missed the marketing window due to the late start and Georgia’s early start. This year we seem to be hitting our window pretty well. They’re not getting the market for the Chilean berries right now. We’re bringing in some trays ourselves and we’re seeing it in the low $20s, giving them another reason to get out earlier.”
Mr. Cain said that some Florida growing areas, primarily around Gainesville, were already bringing in blueberries by the end of February.
He expected most of the state’s production to come on by mid-March, “and we’re looking for our peak hopefully the first week of April and we’ll go real strong from there into the middle of May,” he said. “I think the price will be there, the demand will be good. There will be some pent-up demand for good, solid, nice domestic berries with a little bit of snap to ‘em. The Chileans have been tough late in the season — there are a lot of soft berries in there.”
Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of Winter Haven, FL-based SunnyRidge Farm Inc., said that Florida growers benefit from competing against the end of the Chilean crop in more ways than one. Not only can Florida farmers offer fresh-vs.-storage product in March, “just like in the U.S., the Chilean late fruit is dominated by a sour berry,” he said. “That’s a competitive advantage to us to have great-tasting berries to start off with.”
Since Florida farmers are the first to market fresh blueberries in the calendar year, “Thus far we have had nice prices that pay a premium over the cost of production,” Mr. Mixon said. Florida growers average about $5 per pound for the crop prior to May 1, and sometimes that figure goes as high as $7. Once other states come into the deal, prices drop but production is still profitable.
Even though the Chileans are “squashing us from one direction” and “we’re butting heads more with our late competitors California and Georgia, we still have our own niche,” Mr. Patterson said.
Though competition is squeezing both ends of the Florida market, it has been good for the industry as a whole, Mr. Patterson said. “Blueberries are affordable, easy to eat, you don’t peel them, you don’t cook them, they’re easy for kids just to grab and moms to buy, and the fact that countries like Argentina and Chile are producing in the winter have made them available all year long and kept the demand going and growing.”