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.
With the decline of citrus acreage due to greening disease, many orange groves are being converted to blueberry production. Due to this and the popularity of blueberries in the American diet, we will probably see our acreage of Florida blueberries continue to increase in the next few years. We still have a way to go to surpass the Georgia growers who, at about 25 thousand acres, have more blueberry production than any state in the nation.
Florida growers enjoy the unique advantage of harvesting the first berries in the US each spring. This means we get the highest price for our blueberries, with prices falling as the harvest progresses north through Florida and moves into Georgia and the Carolinas.
Most varieties of blueberries grown in Florida are “Southern Highbush” types developed by the breeders at the University of Florida specifically to thrive in our sub-tropical environment. Even these specially bred plants do not like our soil in most areas of Florida, so they are commercially grown in pine bark beds.
Pine bark presents its own unique challenges to the grower. While it is a suitable medium for blueberry production, bark fails to hold moisture near the plant roots, necessitating constant vigilance on the part of the grower to make sure the plants stay hydrated, especially in the heat of our summer seasons.
Other problems have been presented to Florida Blueberry growers in the form of Cedar Waxwings, a small migratory bird that seems to have been specifically designed by nature to consume large quantities of blueberries on the bush. They can come in flocks of thousands and, if they find your field, the challenge to dissuade these little thieves can be daunting.
Other pests and pathogens also thrive in Florida and seem to like blueberries as much as the Waxwings. Through cooperative efforts with the University of Florida IFAS scientists, we have learned how to deal with most of them effectively but, as our acreage has expanded, new pests are finding our fields and we are again faced with the challenge of how to manage them.
Florida’s blueberry season runs from April thru May each year and field fresh Florida blueberries certainly taste better than the South American berries we have been consuming all winter, most of which spent several weeks on a boat to reach our grocery store shelves. We celebrate the harvest each year with the Florida Blueberry Festival, held in Brooksville in Hernando County. The dates for the festival this year are April 16-17.
Florida Blueberries can be grown in your backyard garden too. You should consult with your county extension agent to see which varieties do best in your area. Be prepared to build your own pine bark beds and keep the plants well watered and free of pests and fungus.
“You pick” farms are another family fun way to get fresh Florida blueberries right off the bush. The Florida Blueberry Growers Association’s web page has a list of you pick operations in your area.
Blueberries are part of a healthy diet for everyone from young children to our growing population of older Americans. The plentiful anti-oxidants contained in a handful of blueberries can help to control your weight, blood sugar and even make your brain work better!
Enjoy our “Fresh from Florida” spring crop of blueberries in your favorite recipes, or simply toss a handful into your pancake mix or smoothie for a breakfast treat.
Dudley Calfee is an award winning grower, Agricultural Consultant and President of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. He and his wife, Diane, reside in Citrus County, Florida.