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California blueberry crop shows volume uptick

California blueberry growers are tickled pink as they ramp up production for their 2014 season. Alexander Ott, executive director of the California Blueberry Commission, places volume in the neighborhood of 54 million pounds. "That's slightly higher than last year," he told The Produce News.

Weather during the growing season has been favorable, and temperatures have been warm. "The harvest is starting to pick up now," he said April 18, adding that activity began a full 10 days ahead of normal timetables. Production will peak in mid-May and finish in mid-June.bbopenCalifornia blueberry producers are expected to market 54 million pounds of blueberries in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Homegrown Organic Farms)

California is home to 80 blueberry growers and 20 handlers, and the Golden State continues its national ranking as the fifth-largest blueberry producer. The majority of California blueberries are marketed domestically. "We export roughly 20 percent of our product," Ott commented.

Growers have faced challenges in 2014, and water is a topic on everyone's mind. California continues a downward spiral as drought conditions worsen and increasing restrictions on water use are imposed. "It's nerve-racking," Ott noted. "Water [conditions] right now are unprecedented."

Agricultural producers bringing in crops at the beginning of the spring and early summer hope to take advantage of rainfall. But as the year progresses, the potential for rainfall dries up.

According to Ott, some growers are seeking to deepen their wells by as much as a factor of two. While wells can be dug deeper, Ott went on to say that the administrative process generally takes two years, creating an obvious bind.

"If we have another bad drought next year, we'll be in serious trouble," he said of the effect on California agriculture. "The U.S. is used to buying fruit and vegetables whenever they want." Some producers could move to planting more drought-tolerant commodities in place of crops such as fruit. "We're at critical mass now," he continued. "We'll have to deal with the consequences of agriculture leaving California."

As for the issue of water storage projects, Ott summed it up this way: "There's a lot of lip service but not a lot of action."

The second issue of continued concern is access to an adequate labor force. Ott expects blueberry growers will find the labor they need to bring in this year's crop. But he said that the supply of workers begins to diminish as laborers find jobs in California's construction trade and housing market.