Central Florida is set to be one of the United States’ leading producers of this nutritious and delicious fruit.
Most people don’t realize that if it wasn’t for the blueberry, the United States might be a very different looking country today. When American settlers established the Plymouth Colony in 1620 they were unaccustomed to the northeastern climate and initially failed miserably when it came to farming enough food to survive. Many died from starvation until the Native Americans taught them how to properly farm the land and supplement their meager diets with one of the North American continents limited list of native fruits — the blueberry.
Today, blueberries are a mainstay on the American agricultural scene with over 200,000 tons being produced annually on the North American continent alone. Production here has become so prolific that it constitutes almost 90 percent of the world’s commercial blueberry crop.
Two-thirds of the blueberries produced in the United States come from Michigan and New Jersey, as traditionally blueberries have fared better in higher, cooler latitudes. Even though northern climes are more suitable for natural blueberry growth, researchers believe that the first attempt over a century ago to cultivate the blueberry for commercial use was in Florida.
The state is covered with at least eight species of wild blueberry and farmers attempted to farm wild rabbiteye blueberries. Because it was such a hard task to get the blueberries (while still fresh) to distant markets, the endeavor was soon abandoned.
Small ventures sprouted up again in the 1960s but the local crops were mainly available only for local consumption. Because native Florida species ripened so late in the year, due to lack of cool weather, the national and international marketplace was inaccessible to local growers. By the time their crop was available to ship, markets were already full of northern blueberries and prices had dropped.
Blueberries and higher learning
In the 1950s researchers at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville began to experiment with blueberry breeding, attempting to create hybrids by cross-pollinating the Northern Highbush with native Florida blueberry strains. Three of these hybrids, called cultivars, were provided to Florida farmers in 1976 and they began to revolutionize the state’s blueberry industry.
“The University of Florida created the Southern Highbush,” says Ken Patterson, owner of Island Grove Ag Products. “This is what made the blueberry industry in Florida possible.”
Patterson is one of the top four blueberry producers in the state. He has two 185-acre farms, one in Hawthorne and one in Arcadia. He credits the patented hybrids coming out of UF with making his farms financially viable.
“The University is still producing hybrids each year in an attempt to create the best possible blueberries for the state,” he says. “The Southern Highbush enables us to reach the fresh blueberry market earlier than any other state in the nation and any other country in the world. We harvest in late March and early April and get premium price for our crop.”
The growth cycle of the blueberry
What does it take to grow blueberries locally? To better understand the pitfalls associated with blueberry farming, Patterson describes a typical year for the Florida blueberry farmer.
“Blueberries have a unique growth and harvest cycle,” Patterson says. “During the summer we fertilize the bushes to make them grow. We stop fertilizing in late September or early October and the plants become dormant.
“They begin setting fruit buds at this time through late fall or early December. The number of fruit buds created during this period determines how big the blueberry crop will be for the year. During this period we don’t mind freezes at all as it won’t affect the buds; in fact, ideally we need 200–300 hours of temperatures below 45 F. (it varies for different plant species), called a “chill requirement.” This cool air will maximize the number of fruit buds that will actually produce fruit.
“However, once the bud opens in late January to early February the plant is then extremely vulnerable to cold temperatures. During this time we want as many warm nights as possible. The warmer the weather, the sooner the petals fall off the buds and the fruit begins to form. This can take anywhere from two weeks to one month. If, at this time, we have a freeze, then the only way we can protect our crop is by using overhead sprinklers much as the citrus industry does.
“The fruit then ripens over the next 60–70 days. Once it ripens we handpick the bushes. Usually it takes about three pickers per acre and we re-pick the same bushes every three to six days. We repeat this process about 10 times.”
Patterson says that a good crop will produce from 7,000–10,000 pounds of blueberries per acre and that some farmers get between 10,000–14,000 pounds per acre.
Patterson says that Florida’s unique geographical location makes it an ideal area to grow blueberries. The Gulf of Mexico and the warm Gulfstream waters that wind around Florida’s east coast moderate the state’s temperature, providing an environment favorable to the Southern Highbush species.
This enables farmers in the state to get their berries to the fresh market anywhere from late March to early April. This is well ahead of the rest of the nation, especially the northern states who once monopolized the nations’ blueberry industry. Peak harvest time in the north is in July and to show how that area once monopolized the blueberry industry, July has been declared National Blueberry Month.
That is all changing as Florida farmers see the opportunity to gain a giant market share in this blossoming industry. In 2010 Florida blueberry farming had grown into a $48 million industry with over 3,500 acres of land delegated to planting.
Six years ago Inverness resident Dave Tomczak decided to try his hand at blueberry farming. His 25-acre Hidden Acres Farm has provided a challenging experience.
“Blueberry farming isn’t like farming most crops that you plant and 60–90 days later you harvest. Blueberries are a once-a-year crop and you only have one chance to do it right. Sometimes Mother Nature cooperates and sometimes she doesn’t. We had problems this year on February 11 and 12 when we had cold weather along with high winds; the wind blew the water off the plants and they lost their protection from the freezing air. Each year is different and the challenges are different.”
In addition to weather problems, Tomczak and other farmers face problems with pests and disease. His farm undergoes periodic agricultural and food service inspections to make sure quality standards are met so he will be allowed to ship his crop to other countries such as Canada.
Why did Tomczak become a blueberry farmer? “I ask myself that same question sometimes,” he says and laughs. “I did some research before I started and I liked what I saw. I wanted to try something a little different and blueberry farming is different. It has been up and down but overall it has been pretty good.”
Facing new challenges
Patterson says that the hybrids created at UF and other research institutions have made their way onto the international scene.
“I really feel like there is a big bull’s-eye on my back here in Florida,” he says. “Everybody wants an April harvest. Right now, Mexico is our biggest threat in the international market and Georgia and California are our national competitors. But we are still ahead of them just because of our unique geographical features.”
Patterson says that blueberry cultivation in Spain, Morocco, Australia, Chile, Argentina, and Europe all challenge state farmers, but that when it comes to fresh market blueberries in April and May Florida is the world leader. Bad weather in Spain and Morocco this year has Florida’s’s blueberry crop poised to bring in top dollar prices.
So, when it comes to blueberries — Florida is one place that is happy to sing the blues.
Sources: Bañados, M.P. 2009. EXPANDING BLUEBERRY PRODUCTION INTO NON-TRADITIONAL PRODUCTION AREAS: NORTHERN CHILE AND ARGENTINA, MEXICO AND SPAIN. Acta Hort. (ISHS) 810:439-445: Fun Facts About the Food We Eat; http://www.agday.org/education/fun_facts.php: Blueberry breeding and genetics;
http://hos.ufl.edu/faculty/jwolmstead/blueberry-breeding-and-genetics: Blueberry Varieties for Florida; http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs215 (Accessed March 2, 2012)