As it enters a new season, Georgia remains on the verge of becoming one of the largest U.S. blueberry producing states, and it’s been increasing production every year.
Despite a February freeze that destroyed half of its first crop, the state is on track for record production.
Production increased from 20 million pounds in 2004 to an expected 50 million pounds this season.
Last year, Georgia produced 59 million pounds, 3 million more pounds than it produced in 2010.
Georgia produces two crops. The southern highbush crop normally starts in late April and declines in late May when the rabbit eye deal starts production.
Surprisingly, many retail buyers aren’t aware of Georgia’s production prowess.
Joe Cornelius, president of J&B Blueberry Farms Inc., Manor, Ga., and chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission, is trying to change that perception.
In late March, Cornelius, who is vice chairman of Grand Junction-based Michigan Blueberry Growers Association, was clearing 40 acres for another expansion.
During the 1990s, before the blueberry wave began, a grower clearing 10 acres was a big jump, Cornelius said.
“We are trying to get the industry’s attention and make them more aware of the fact that Georgia is a pretty good-sized player,” Cornelius said.
“When they learn I’m on MBG’s board, they’ll say ‘You grow blueberries in Georgia?’ and be amazed to learn about the state’s production.”
A leader in the state’s deal, Cornelius began production in 1989 with his brother, Alex Cornelius, on 17 acres. Today, with separate operations, the two of them grow on 370 acres.
While Georgia was the second largest overall producer in 2010 and fourth largest in 2011, it shipped the second-largest amount to fresh channels those years, according to industry numbers.
About 65% of the state’s crop ships fresh.
In a normal year, Georgia produces 50 million to 60 million pounds.
New acreage could push that production to 70 million or 80 million pounds, and maybe even more, in the next several years, Joe Cornelius said. He said that’s what the state would be producing this season if the freeze hadn’t struck.
In 2011, pollination issues kept production in check.
Though official U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers put Georgia blueberries at around 15,000 acres, Cornelius said USDA figures are up to three years behind and said most in the industry believe the state’s 400 growers have 23,000 acres in production.
“You can talk with a county agent riding the dirt,” Cornelius said. “All the sudden, he’ll see a 25-acre patch of blueberries. This deal is really growing.”
California is also exploding in blueberry production.
According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif., the Golden State increased its production from 4.9 million pounds in 2004 to 42 million pounds in 2011.
At 33 million pounds, California is now the sixth biggest fresh blueberry producing state, exceeding North Carolina’s 29 million pounds but comparable to Michigan, Georgia and Oregon, which in 2011 each produced 31 million to 36 million pounds, according to the council and U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
The production bonanza is helping retailers merchandise more late spring and early summer berries.
Combined with Florida, California and North Carolina production, growers are helping move the traditional supply curve peak from July and August to May and June.