State of the Florida Blueberry Industry Op-Ed for Florida Grower

By Dudley Calfee, President, Florida Blueberry Growers Association

Florida Blueberry growers harvested about 20 million pounds of fruit this season.  Far better than the 13 million last year, but not quite as good as the season before when we produced 26 million pounds.

Most growers I have talked to said they had a “good” season.  We kept the pests and pathogens at bay this season, but the producers who struggled had the most trouble with labor: A plentiful crop was on the bush, but harvest workers were hard to recruit or keep.  Larger growers seemed to have an easier time with labor while the smaller ones found getting the fruit off the bush challenging.

As a result, some growers picked every berry on the bush this season while others left some fruit to be lost when the bushes were trimmed to prepare for summer growth and next season’s crop.

Grocery store buyers also imported several million pounds of blueberries from Mexico, putting downward pressure on prices this season.  Although we did see a significant price increase mid-season when it was realized that the freeze damage to the Georgia crop was a reality and that their crop was going to be severely impacted.

Crop forecasting, a missing piece to the puzzle: The Florida Blueberry Growers Association continues to work with the Florida Department of Agriculture, the University of Florida and growers across the state to develop a way to be able to let our commercial buyers know the size of our crop each year.  If we can give them this information, we have a reason to ask them to stay loyal to “local” Florida fruit and stay away from Mexican imports.  If we tell the buyers nothing each season, they will continue to hedge their bets by importing fruit to satisfy their customers.  American consumers are used to having a year-round supply of blueberries and the grocery stores must meet this demand or lose customers.  Let’s give the grocers a reason to stay with Florida blueberries: Information.  Like most other industries, knowledge is power in the Florida blueberry business.  

We are also working with UF/IFAS to fill the blueberry specialist position at the Balm Research Center.  We have several excellent candidates for the position; this specialist should be a conduit for information from Gainesville to the growers and from growers to the breeding program and other researchers at UF.  Getting information flowing like this should help both the growers and UF get ahead on new varieties and also any threats to our crop from pests or disease.

I am also serving on the advisory committee for a University of Georgia project to develop a better mechanical harvester for Southern High Bush blueberries.  Utilizing a specially developed sensor not much larger than an actual blueberry that can be placed in the bush, the team can test how changes to harvester equipment affect the fruit.  The goal of this research is to come up with equipment that will do the job of getting our fruit off the bush with minimal loss, damage and bruising.  

Machine harvesting is very important – we should not be leaving berries and profits in the field each season due to labor shortages or downward pressure on prices when northern state crops begin to harvest in higher volumes.

We are also working to get funding for grower suggested research projects.  Growers know the problems they face in the field each day – suggestions from the guys in the trenches will help researchers on track in staying ahead of pest, variety specific and disease issues.

To summarize: I think the most important key elements to the maturation of the Florida blueberry industry are and will continue to be:

  • Crop Forecasting
  • Developing and improving our machine harvest capability
  • Better communication between researchers and growers
  • Grower driven research

If we can meet these most important challenges, I think we will see our Florida blueberry industry continue to grow and thrive.

An important message from our President….

“To all of our Florida Blueberry Growers Association members:

Our harvest time is really getting kicked into high gear. While the last few months of 2016 did not give our crops as many chill hours as we’ve seen in years past, it was not a complete lack of chill accumulation. That being said, we know all too well that Mother Nature is not always kind to everyone. Our hearts go out to our brother growers in Georgia as they grapple with the effects of the recent inclement weather. The freeze events to the north that occurred in March may open up opportunities for a longer harvest season for Florida growers. Although it is nearly impossible to predict the volume, most of the Florida fields should have a pretty good harvest.
So, the Florida blueberry industry has the opportunity to have a profitable season. With the dismal season of last year in mind, we as an industry, cannot miss this opportunity.

It is essential to practice clear communication between the growers and the marketers selling the fruit. It is imperative that all growers stay in close contact with their marketer and give them accurate weekly harvest estimates. With this information, the marketer should market your fruit according to the rules of supply and demand and not to historic calendar pricing. With the limited amount of fruit available over the next 2 months, this information is critical to a successful season.

Here are a few important reminders for harvest time that will hopefully help increase efficiency, volume, and have a positive impact on the price.

· Harvest every day if you can. Communicate with your crew leaders and labor team to make sure they understand the importance of daily harvest.

· Most important, so I am listing this twice – Keep your marketer informed of the volume you will be picking each day. Let them know as soon as possible if your actual volume on any given day is going to be significantly different (higher or lower) than you initially projected. If too many farms deliver an unanticipated or unplanned number of pounds to the dock without warning, it could have a negative impact on price. After each day’s harvest, redo the math and share the new anticipated total as early in the morning as you can.

· Be diligent and stay on top of your SWD, snail, and fungicide program. As a reminder, if you are concerned that moving your sprayer through the field will knock off fruit, then look into your aerial spraying options. There are several companies that provide this service and cater to blueberry operations.

· If you are open to it, consider opening your farm to the public and host a u-pick. This can help supplement income towards the end of the season, when the pickers are starting to head up north for the Georgia harvest and you still have fruit on the bush. If you are planning on hosting a u-pick (whether it’s for the first time or not), read the editor’s notes in this edition of The Blueberry News magazine. She offers some helpful suggestions on marketing and using social media to get promote your u-pick.

Also, the FBGA website has a portal for you to add your farm for u-pick operations and is one of the most popular destinations on the site.

Also, a reminder that your FBGA Executive Committee and Board of Directors remain committed to helping our industry grow and thrive. We all volunteer our time to serve you— the growers, marketers, and associate members. Please contact us if we can be of assistance to you in any way.

As always, I wish everyone a safe and profitable season.

Dudley Calfee
President, Florida Blueberry Growers Association”

Time Is Now For Florida Blueberry Growers To Dig In

Another challenging Florida blueberry season is behind us. While official crop estimates will not be available for some time, I would guess that we will come in somewhere between 10 million and 13 million pounds for the 2015-2016 season, down about 50% from last season’s 25 million pound harvest.

What happened?

Blueberries first need chill hours to set bloom and then heat units to ripen.

A much warmer than normal November and December gave us little to no chill hours throughout the state, resulting in poor bloom set and difficulty in correctly timing hydrogen cyanamide applications.

We also were faced with much cooler than normal late winter and spring weather, causing our smaller crop to ripen much later than our normal harvest window.

The timing of our harvest meant that most of our labor went north before the bulk of the harvest could be completed, leaving a lot of fruit on the bush. The fruit that was left could not be harvested due to lack of labor or the economic reality of the price of the fruit falling below the level that is profitable to harvest.

Most growers I have talked to have put their harvest at 30% to 50% of what they got last season.

They say adversity breeds character; I also think it breeds innovation. We saw a lot of growers trying machine harvesting for the first time this season. Commissioner Adam Putnam and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services mounted a multimedia campaign to promote U-Pick operations throughout the state, helping growers get some of the late fruit off the bush and put some money in their pockets. As a result of this promotion, a lot of Floridians got to experience the fun of a day on the farm picking our tasty and healthy blueberries with their friends and families.

Crop insurance is now available in most blueberry producing counties in the state at this time and more growers are investigating how this income protection will work with their operations.

Fine Forecast Ahead

We also are moving ahead with our blueberry crop forecast project. Commissioner Putnam has directed his staff to move this to the top of the list of things to be completed under his watch. Our first grower survey has been done so we have a better idea of the scope of blueberry growing operations in the state.

More work on the crop forecast system is still to be done by the scientists at UF/IFAS and the Florida Automated Weather Network. We are pulling together the blueberry plant breeders, climatologists, as well as computer and mathematics specialists to design, test, and fine-tune a forecasting model that should be in place in the next two years.

Our Florida blueberry industry continues to move ahead, expanding our acreage each year and meeting and overcoming challenges. Agriculture in any form is not an easy business, and blueberry plantings in large numbers are now a reality. But we are blessed with a lot of very hard-working and intelligent folks in the blueberry business. I am confident we will continue to find solutions to our problems and adapt with resilient determination and innovation to whatever Mother Nature and market forces put in our way.

Increase in the number of acres of commercially grown berries in FLorida.

Blueberries have been here in Florida for a long time, but only recently have we seen a tremendous increase in the number of acres of commercially grown berries in our state. We should surpass 8,000 acres this year, making Florida a serious player in the worldwide blueberry industry.

While some growers used to be able to produce a cash crop of berries on only a few acres, most commercial operations now range from 30-300 acres in size. But, unlike our northern neighbor growers, most of Florida’s blueberry crop is still harvested by hand, not machine. Continue reading

Florida Blueberries

Florida’s spring crop of blueberries is here! While some growers with early varieties or those located in the southern areas have already started harvesting small amounts of our tasty blueberries the real volume will come later this month and on into April and May when central and north Florida picking begins.

Unlike the rabbit eye varieties grown in the north, which are usually tiny and have a moderate taste, our Florida Southern High Bush berries are large and have a wonderful sweet flavor. It is not unusual to find Florida blueberries as big as your thumb! Continue reading

PRESIDENT’S LETTER: Overcoming the Challenges at Hand

It is no secret that we are up against another challenging season.  The lack of chill throughout our state has caused our crop to be slow and most of it will be ripening later than our traditional harvest time.

All reports indicate that our neighbors to the north are running on time and may even be a little early this year.

A lot of fruit is going to hit the market at an unusual time this year.  What can we, as growers, do to mitigate this problem?

Continue reading

The Hot Topics on Everyone’s Minds

I am writing this letter in mid-December and right now the only thing I hear our blueberry growers talking about is “chill.” In the midst of this hot topic, the two words I hear most often in this discussion are “little” and “none.”

It has been a historically warm winter so far, and this poses significant challenges to us as blueberry growers. So far this year, chill has been hard to come by throughout the state. Chill is usually defined as the time our bushes spend below 45 degrees but above 32 degrees. More chill usually means more fruit. This lack of chill also makes Hydrogen Cyanamid application a bit more of a guessing game. Continue reading