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Experts say Florida’s blueberry production may reach 25 million pounds

Twenty years ago, there was virtually no commercial production of blueberries in the state of Florida, except for U-pick farms and berries grown for local markets. This year, some experts said Florida’s blueberry production may reach 25 million pounds, putting the state in the ranks of other leading producers like North Carolina, Georgia, California and Oregon.

Michigan and New Jersey still lead the way in domestic production with more than 50 million pounds each, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but Florida’s totals are growing every year, a trend that seems sure to continue for the foreseeable future.

Florida produced 21.5 million pounds of blueberries in 2013, up 14 percent over 2012, according to Bill Braswell, a state industry leader, farm manager for Clear Springs Packing LLC in Bartow, FL, and the owner of Polkdale Farms and Juliana Plantation in Auburndale, FL.

Braswell said harvest will begin in mid-to-late March in South and Central Florida with North Florida kicking off in mid-April. The crop is in good condition and Braswell expects volumes to peak during the second and third weeks of April, just ahead of the Georgia deal coming on at the end of that month.

Blueberry production has exploded in Florida in recent years due to new Southern highbush cultivars from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences 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 between the end of Chilean imports and the beginning of domestic seasons in Georgia and the Carolinas.

Barely established, that exclusive window is already under attack, with Chilean imports stretching later and Georgia and Carolina seemingly starting earlier each year, Florida growers said.

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,” said Ken Patterson of Island Grove Ag Products in Hawthorne, FL, who was instrumental in the founding of the Florida industry.

As the Florida deal grows, its nature is changing. While the industry was once a collection of individual visionaries, success has brought competition. Many of the growers who first forayed into Florida blueberry production have fallen by the wayside as major players have seen opportunity in the state.

In the 1990s, several enterprising Florida growers launched commercial blueberry operations, almost all of them in a five-county area around Ocala. “There were a lot of players, but out of all those, only one of them survived that I know of, the rest all went by the wayside, mainly because of inferior varieties,” said Patterson, who served six years as the Southeastern rep on the National Blueberry Council and remains on the board.

With improved varieties coming from IFAS at regular intervals, over the last few seasons big players have gotten into the Florida blueberry deal in a big way, companies with well-known names like Sunny Ridge, Dole, Driscoll, California Giant and Wishnatzki Farms.

That has made it difficult for smaller producers to compete. And the industry’s next tool for propelling growth will put even more pressure on small and medium growers. In the next few years, mechanization promises to propel the Florida industry to even greater heights.

“The average cost to pick a pound of blueberries in Florida right now is 75-80 cents, total,” Patterson explained. “If you can get that to 10 or 15 with a machine, and the machine never shows up drunk and it’s there every day, that’s huge. All I gotta feed a machine is fuel.”

Even newer varieties of the Southern highbush hold berries on the bush long enough to make mechanical harvesting viable and all larger growers are replacing parts of their acreage with those varieties each year.

“There’s a lot of new blueberry acreage going in in Florida,” said Patterson.  “Since I sell plants, I kind of am in tune with that. People used to be putting in five and 10 acres, now it’s 40 and 60. Citrus people are putting it in, strawberry people are putting it in. The health benefits propelled us in a huge way in the last 10 years — it’s been phenomenal and there’s a lot more coming.”

When the Florida Blueberry Growers Association held its first meeting a few years ago, “there were about 25 of us there and we all knew each other by name.” This year’s meeting in early March drew hundreds of attendees. “I don’t know anybody any more,” Patterson joked. “I feel like an old-timer.”