By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
This year's Georgia blueberry crop is expected to be better than last season's, despite the problems caused by an overabundance of rain in March.
"From an individual standpoint, some of our growers won't have as good a year because we had a lot of rain," said Danny Stanaland, the University of Georgia Extension Service coordinator in Bacon County.
"The wet conditions prevented some farmers from getting in their fields on a timely schedule," he said. "It caused heavy disease pressure."
Stanaland said he is seeing some of the worst cases of botrytis and mummy berry disease he's ever seen. And serving Georgia's largest-producing blueberry county, he knows blueberries.
Botrytis is a bloom disease that causes the bloom to shut down. Mummy berry causes the berries to mummify and fall off the bush.
Georgia growers began picking this year's crop a few weeks ago. The harvest should continue until mid-July.
New varieties always wanted
Stanaland said blueberry growers are always searching for new plant varieties to replace aging ones.
"Growers are also looking for the early varieties so they can be first to the market," he said. "That's where your highest prices are."
Blueberry plants mature after five to six years and begin to lose some of their redeeming qualities, he said.
UGA horticulturists are breeding new releases that will produce higher yields and resist diseases.
Scott NeSmith, a UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences horticulturist, recently released a new rabbiteye blueberry, Ochlockonee (ok-LAHK-uh-nee). A joint release by UGA CAES and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it's named for the south Georgia river.
Last year, NeSmith released Alapaha, which should be ready for farmers and home gardeners by fall. He plans to release three more new blueberry varieties over the next four years, each named for a river in south Georgia. Blueberries first grew as native plants along these rivers.
Ripens later and makes bigger berries
The newest release is touted for its late-ripening ability, high yield and medium-to-large berries.
"Ochlockonee has shown high yields when compared to the late-season rabbiteye standard, Tifblue," NeSmith said. "In fact, in a five-year study, Tifblue's yield in south Georgia was only 59 percent of that of Ochlockonee."
Besides growing more berries, Ochlockonee grows them bigger, especially during its first harvest, NeSmith said. "These two properties alone make this selection desirable as a highly productive late-season rabbiteye cultivar," he said.
Tifblue and Ochlockonee are comparable in their vigor and their berries' color and firmness. And, like Tifblue, the new blueberry is "favorable" for escaping south Georgia's spring freeze damage, NeSmith said.
Ochlockonee may be new to the farm and garden scene, but it was actually first selected in the mid-1960s by UGA researchers in Tifton, Ga. It was bred in Beltsville, Md., by USDA researchers who crossed Tifblue with Menditoo.
"We know this plant is very durable," NeSmith said, "because we have an Ochlockonee planting in Alapaha, Ga., that's more than 25 years old and is still quite vigorous and productive."
About 40 percent of Georgia's blueberry crop is sold as a fresh-market product. The rest goes into the frozen-foods market. Georgia farmers have more than 5,000 acres devoted to blueberries. Bacon County, in southeast Georgia, has about half of that.
Try this at home
If you'd like to grow your own blueberries, Stanaland has a few suggestions.
"Pick a blend of plant varieties that produce early-, mid- and late-season fruit," he said. "This will assure that you have a good window of fresh fruit all season."
He recommends rabbiteye blueberry varieties because they're easier to grow. It will take a few years for your plants to produce a lot of fruit.
"After a couple of years, you'll start to see your home harvest grow," he said. "Just remember, as your plants grow larger, so will your fruit production."