Hardships born from a big freeze in 2016 have inspired Georgia’s blueberry industry to invest in some protective technology so growers don’t get frozen out of the market again.
“The biggest change is a lot of overhead irrigation to protect us from freeze events, on our farm and statewide. It protects berries and blooms to down to 26 degrees,” said.
Brandon Wade, who runs Alma Nursery & Berry Farms, Alma, Ga. He’s also president of the Georgia Blueberry Growers Association, which has 250 grower members.
Whenever water freezes, it gives off heat, so if a grower can make the plant continually exude heat, the process can keep the blueberry plants at 32 degrees.
It is quite a large investment, Wade said. The process typically requires building a water reservoir to pull from or a large, deep well with a pumping unit.
“Most places need 3,000 gallons a minute to cover 25-30 acres, so it’s a very significant amount of water and piping to cover that area. And it’s permanent, laid in the ground,” Wade said.
It was a gamble to wait until the plants were about three years old, he said. In 2016, a lot of farmers were putting in berries, but they lost those berries.
“There’s been a big push because of market instability to protect our fruit more,” Wade said.
The instability lies in the estimates from farmers to marketers to chain stores.
Blueberry growers and marketers haven’t hit their estimates the past couple of years because of weather and other factors, he said.
In 2018, harvesting at Alma Berry Farms was almost two weeks later than what was expected for the peak early season. When store sales are set up six weeks in advance, that’s a problem.
“For multiple different marketers it caused a bit of unrest. It’s the only way to stay competitive is to have a more consistent crop each year,” Wade said.