Published on 02/08/07

Organics could boost Georgia’s blueberry industry

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Blueberries may not be the cure-all for everything from cancer to economic instability, but they’re on the rise in rural Georgia. And health-conscious fans have a new twist: organic blueberries.

The little berry bush, native to the U.S. Southeast, is hardy and disease resistant in a climate that hurts organic agriculture more than it helps. Where fruit crops such as peaches, apples and strawberries have a hard time surviving insects and diseases, blueberries thrive.

And organically grown blueberries might be just the boost small towns in south Georgia need to thrive themselves.

“A lot of areas where blueberries grow are economically depressed,” said Gerard Krewer, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension horticulturist in Tifton, Ga.

Conventional blueberry farms are concentrated in south Georgia. Organic production “would perhaps keep people from moving away from the areas and would definitely benefit the local communities,” said Harald Scherm, a plant pathology professor in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Scherm and Krewer and Georgia county Extension agents are taking on the challenge of growing organic blueberries. Their research is designed to help growers manage weeds, insects and diseases to grow organic blueberries.

“Organic production is harder,” Krewer said. “We don’t have magic silver bullets -- the fungicide, insecticide and herbicide options -- that make the job of growing so much easier.”

For years, Krewer has studied organic blueberries on a shoestring budget. When he started working on larger projects in 2005, he started looking for more funding.

He, Scherm and colleagues at the University of Florida were awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Integrated Organic Program. Their goal over the next three years is “to develop best management practices and economic cost analyses for organic blueberry production,” Scherm said.

“Recently, organic produce has become much more widely available due to mass merchandising, chain stores and marketing,” Krewer said. “There’s been a real change in the mind-set as some of the growers realize the demand for organic produce.”

The scientists are working closely with organic blueberry growers through Georgia Organics, Inc. Eight Georgia farmers grow organic blueberries now on 200 acres.

“This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky research,” Scherm said. “It’s really happening.”

Blueberries have their roots buried deep in Georgia soil. The rabbiteye blueberry is native to southeast Georgia and northeast Florida. It can grow organically despite pest and disease problems caused by the region’s high humidity.

“Weed control is a major issue,” Scherm said, “especially when you’re establishing new plots. And with older blueberry plots, woody weeds are major problems.”

Scherm is also looking at ways to fertilize blueberries organically. He’s testing such products as pasteurized chicken litter and bone meal.

“We’re trying to see how farmers should use these products and developing a set of management guidelines for weeds and fertilizers,” he said. “We’re also looking at insect management organically, through biological controls and biopesticides.”

They’re studying organic mulches, too, such as peanut hulls, pine straw, bark and organically approved plastic.

And while they’re checking the scientific side, UGA economist Greg Fonsah is looking at the economic feasibility of organic blueberry production.

“Much of the grant focuses on horticulture, what happens in the field,” Krewer said. “But what also matters in the long run is the economics of growing organic blueberries. Farmers have to make money to stay in business.”

Georgia blueberry acreage has grown from 4,500 acres in 2002 to more than 6,000 acres in 2006, Fonsah said.

“This acreage is expected to further increase in 2007,” he said. “More growers are getting interested in this crop, which is now ranked second in the state’s fruit and nut industry.”

The demand for blueberries is partially due to their nutritional value. They contain vitamin C, and their antioxidants may help prevent certain cancers.

“There has been a tremendous expansion of overall blueberry production as people realize the health benefits of blueberries,” Scherm said.

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.