President’s Letter: Investigating How We Can Better Forecast Our Crop

Well, another season is behind us.  The bushes are trimmed and we are into our summer spray and maintenance programs.  We have also had a chance to look at the numbers for this season and the results for most was somewhat disappointing.

We harvested about 16.5 Million pounds of blueberries in the state of Florida this season.  This is down 25 percent from last year’s harvest of 22 million pounds, and a far cry from the 26 million pounds some were forecasting at the beginning of the season.  Assuming that there are about 5,500 acres of blueberries in Florida (more about this acreage estimate later), this puts our state average at about 3,000 lbs. per acre.  The figures that I am hearing from most growers are that they harvested from 20-60 percent less fruit this year than they had planned.

The reasons for our lower yields this year are many: Low chill hours, labor shortages, hydrogen cyanamide burning blooms, and, of course, the weather.  Data from some weather stations indicate that we got as much as 20 percent less sunlight in the months of January through March, so those seemingly countless long, gray days you remember from this winter were a reality.  And a lot of our fields are getting old, approaching the “10 year” mark, where productivity usually begins to decline.

Add a few cold (albeit not extreme cold) days this season and we saw our harvest dates pushed back a week or two from what we all expected.

Once we finally started to harvest, the fruit was also slow to come off the bush.  Most growers report a reasonably steady harvest this season with no significant “peak” like we usually have in mid-April.

We obviously need to do a better job of estimating our crop for the year.  While most of the marketers did a good job of getting the most money for our fruit in what became a tight market, they all told me that they could have done much better if they had known the significance of the harvest deficit this year.

So what can we do about this lack of accurate forecast information?

The Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the FBGA have agreed to investigate how we can better forecast the Florida blueberry crop for a season.  The challenges to this task are many.  The differences from farm to farm in plant variety, age of plantings, plant spacing, organic and conventional, hydrogen cyanamide rates and application timing, location and weather are just a few of the things to consider as we try to calculate yields.

We are going to start this process by trying to get some numbers on farms and acreage.  If you are asked to complete a survey about your farm, please participate in an accurate and timely manner.  This data is crucial.  Right now, we don’t really have a good idea of how many blueberry farms exist in Florida or how much more blueberry acreage is being installed or planned.  The more information we have, they better job of forecasting we can do.

I am told that the birds were either very bad or almost non-existent on farms this year.  You either had them or you didn’t.  I did see what I am sure was a flock of several thousand at one farm I visited.  The sky was almost black with them.  And once they find your field and they are hungry, they can be almost impossible to deter.  We all need to work on getting a Predation Permit approved so we have some more options in dealing with these little thieves.

A lot of farms lost their labor to our neighbor states to the north late in the season, leaving good, marketable fruit in the fields.  Labor is going to continue to be a challenge for us all as the politicians keep kicking the can down the road on immigration reform.  Let’s hope they will do the right thing soon and help all of agriculture secure a stable workforce.

Good luck to everyone as we wind down this season and look down the road to next year.  May it be a productive and profitable season for everyone.

Dudley Calfee
President, Florida Blueberry Growers Association

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