Watermelon, peaches, blueberries ramp up in Georgia

05/04/2012 01:14:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

Buyers could see Georgia’s blueberry, peach and watermelon deals starting earlier than normal this year.

Early season blueberry production is expected to be significantly lower than normal following February freezes.

Though Feb. 11-12 freezes destroyed an estimated half of Georgia’s early blueberry crop, buyers should expect earlier promotable volume.

Mario Flores, director of blueberry product management for Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC’s Grand Junction, Mich., office, said damage was scattered among growers and worse in some fields than others.

The southern highbush crop is running 10-14 days earlier than last year and should bring strong volume May 5-20, Flores said.

Volume typically peaks in late April and early May. Because of the freeze damage this year, however, volume should hit during the second and third weeks of May.

“It would be even worse in terms of availability in early May if the crop wasn’t as early as it is,” Flores said in mid-April.

“Because it’s early, it will give more opportunity for availability of fruit the first half of May. We have a crop that’s declined. But if it was declined on its normal harvest bell curve, so to speak, it has shifted forward,” he said.

“Yes, we’re losing that front end, but since the bell curve is earlier, though reduced, it should still allow for some volume the first half of May.”

The second Georgia blueberry crop, the rabbiteye deal, should start May 23, a little before its normal late May start, said Jerry D’Amore, director of sourcing for Watsonville, Calif.-based Dole Berry Co. LLC’s Winter Haven, Fla., operation.

Flores said the rabbiteye crop should peak May 28 to June 17, earlier than the normal June 7-24 peak.

D’Amore said Dole began light harvesting in its Homerville, Ga., operation April 16 and expected significant volumes to hit April 23.

He said initial reports suggested the rabbiteye remained unaffected from the freeze, but D’Amore said growers now think it should also sustain some damage, though the extent remains uncertain.

“It looks like the remaining fruit is looking good,” D’Amore said in mid-April.

“It appears to be coming out as bigger fruit,” he said.

“As there are fewer berries on the bush, the bushes push what they have. What we are seeing out of Georgia, the fruit that’s there is coming off bigger than normal.”

D’Amore said buyers should expect this season’s smaller volumes to produce firmer prices than last year.

In late April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported flats of 12 6-ounce cups with lids large from south Georgia selling for $20.50-24.50, flats of 12 6-ounce cups with lids medium-large from central and north Florida selling for $20-22.50, and flats of 12 4.4-ounce cups with lids medium selling for $18-19.

Last year in late April, the USDA reported flats of 12 6-ounce cups with lids medium-large from central Florida selling for $26-26.85 while flats of 12 4.4-ounce cups with lids medium-large sold for $20-22.85.

Because of the mild winter growing season, Georgia peach growers expect to begin production in early May, perhaps a week before the deal’s normal May 13-15 start.

Will McGehee, salesman with Genuine Georgia Group and Pearson Farm, Fort Valley, Ga., said he expects the state to enter volume in mid-May, also about seven days early.

The mild temperatures, he said, pose challenges for fruit requiring a certain number of chill hours.

“Our early and midseason varieties look really nice as they received plenty of cold and chill,” he said in mid-April.

“Where we’re seeing any issues is on some of the later varieties, with a little fruit set on the trees. It’s not catastrophic, but it has clipped back a certain percentage of the late crop, which doesn’t have enough chill hours.”

McGehee said fruit quality was “gorgeous” and said the fruit possesses strong bud sets.

Lane Southern Orchards, Fort Valley, plans to start its harvesting May 14, a couple of days sooner than normal.

Duke Lane III, vice president of sales, said the season looks promising.

“We have seen enough crops so we’re comfortable with what it looks like now,” he said in mid-April.

“All the way through it looks good. There may be a variety or two holding them back, but even the ones with question marks are starting to improve,” he said.

“It should be a good year for Georgia peaches.”

Lane said the state should pack 2.5 million cartons this season, down from last year’s 2.9 million cartons.

He said last year was a bumper crop season.

Lane expects to pack 800,000 25-pound half-bushel cartons, similar to last year’s volume.

Georgia peach production normally runs through mid-August.

South Carolina normally begins harvesting in late May and harvests through early September. California typically begins by mid- to late May and produces through September.

A favorable spring is accelerating Georgia watermelon production.

Greg Leger, president and partner in Leger & Son Inc., Cordele, Ga., said the season, beginning with south Florida’s earlier than normal start, seems to be moving along early.

“If it doesn’t slow down, we may have May watermelons in Georgia instead of June 10, when we normally start,” he said in mid-April.

“That may extend the season. Seems like everything is balanced and fair this season. There is no overproduction,” he said.

“The spring-like weather in the Northeast has generated more interest in the watermelon crop than this time last year when they had cold weather and tornadoes everywhere.”

Adel, Ga.-based Borders Melons East, a part of Edinburg, Texas-based Borders Melon Co. Inc., was still transplanting its remaining acreage in mid-April.

Mark Paul, salesman and general manager, said Borders plans to begin production June 10.

“Everything’s on time and (looking) good for Georgia,” he said in mid-April.

“We have had good weather and good growing conditions. All the plants are growing.”

Citing a higher than normal market, Leger and Paul in mid-April quoted 28-30 cents per-pound prices from south Florida.

In mid-April, Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., quoted 30 cents a pound and higher.

“The crops don’t seem to be quite as big as everyone thought they would have been,” he said.

“This time last year, we were on an 18 cents market. Yields are not quite as good,” he said.

“Quality, however, is the best quality of early watermelon to come out of Florida in a long time.”

Lytch said L&M transplanted in mid-April.

He said central Florida should hit volume in May.

North Florida should begin shipping May 10, much earlier than its normal late May start, Lytch said.



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