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.

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