Published on 05/24/12

Blueberry farmers project 60 million pound blueberry harvest

By Merritt Melancon

It’s time to dust off those killer pie and muffin recipes. Georgia’s blueberry season is in full swing.

While the mild winter and early warm temperatures caused some problems with the earlier of the state’s two blueberry crops, Georgia’s late-season berries are doing fine, said Joe Cornelius, president of J&B Blueberry Farms in Manor, Ga., and chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission.

“The berries are very good this year,” he said. “We had a rough start, but the volume is starting to ramp up and the quality of the berries is good … I don’t think the grocery shelves have seen a gap in the supply either. We’ve been scurrying around the fields, working really hard to make sure that they haven’t seen a gap.”

Because of the different varieties of berries planted and different weather patterns across the state, Georgia has one blueberry harvest in April and one in late May or June.

This year both sets of bushes bloomed early, said Scott Nesmith, a blueberry horticulturalist at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences campus in Griffin, Ga.

“It’s historically early; it’s off-the-charts early,” NeSmith said. “We were about five weeks early in South Georgia … I have some things blooming here, in Griffin, that I’ve never seen ripe before May 28, and I’ve been watching them for 10 years. ”

Early blooming doesn’t seem to be affecting the state’s second harvest much, but the first harvest suffered this year because the bushes bloomed early and then were damaged by a mid-February frost, Nesmith said.

About 30 percent of that first crop was lost in the freeze, but some areas were hit harder than others. Cornelius has one field that usually produces 150,000 pounds of fruit during the first harvest cycle and this year it only yielded 15,000 pounds, he said.

The warm temperatures in late February and early March also brought flocks of migratory birds to south Georgia just as farmers were seeing their blueberries mature. Consequently, many berries were lost to hungry birds, Nesmith said.

“It looked like an Alfred Hitchcock movie out there,” Cornelius said.

Luckily, Georgia’s second blueberry harvest, which is typically in May and June, didn’t suffer from either bird predation or frost, he said. Georgia growers are still on track to produce about 60 million pounds of blueberries this year.

While Georgia is technically still “The Peach State,” the value of the state’s blueberry crop, at about $133 million, is almost three times what the state’s peach crop is worth.

Just 10 years ago, there were only about 5,000 acres of blueberry fields in the state and the crop was only worth about $22 million. Today, Georgia farmers are using about 20,000 acres for blueberry production, according to NeSmith.

“When you look at the increase, it’s a curve you shouldn’t be able to get,” he said.

The uptick in blueberry production started in the late 1980s and began to ramp up in the 1990s when food scientists trumpeted the antioxidant-rich berry as a super food, NeSmith said.

South Georgia’s acidic, well-drained soil provided the perfect place for farmers to start to fill the growing market demand for blueberries.

Georgia farmers are looking for new markets for their berries, and new varieties that will allow their farms to be more productive. Both efforts are necessary to compete with growing global production of Georgia’s top berry, Cornelius said.

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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