( Courtesy Blueberry Hill Farms )

The Southeast blueberry industry is at a crossroads as it looks to modernize with more accurate tracking, improve its fruit varieties and find ways to deal with approaching market saturation and increasing imports.

Growers and industry experts say the issues are becoming more significant for not just Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, but the industry nationwide. 

Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council in Folsom, Calif., said while the sharp ramp up in acreage nationwide over the past five years has slowed a bit and stabilized, production will come on soon and increase. The Southeast has more acreage that will grow, he added.

The council is pursuing exporting to countries that don’t import fresh U.S. blueberries, such as Asian markets, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and India. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is negotiating with some governments to end prohibitions, Villata said.

“Production is increasing significantly nationally, so it’s necessary to find outlets for blueberries, and exporting is one of those outlets,” Villata said.

U.S. blueberry production rebounded in 2018 to just over 531 million pounds from 501 million pounds in 2017, according to the North American Blueberry Council. Both years pale in comparison to 2016’s more than 571 million pounds.

Exports haven’t been a big market for U.S. growers, Villata said. 

In 2017, the country exported 61 million pounds of fresh blueberries and 54 million pounds of frozen. In 2016, it was 70 million pounds fresh. 

The 10-year average from 2007-16 was 69 million pounds fresh, according to Villata.

In Georgia, the largest producer in the Southeast region, demand and supply have reversed places, said Jerome Crosby, chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission in Manor, Ga.

Now, the market is approaching maturity, he said. 

“We’ve got to be smarter and more diligent,” Crosby said.

Growers say Southeastern berry growers need to step up quality.

Mark Greeff, vice president and general manager of the Eastern region for Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll’s Inc., cites increased competition from other states and countries.

“Growers have to make sure to harvest fruit that’s fully ripe and fully flavored” — and consistently, he said.

Greeff said one industry trend is evergreen blueberries, which don’t go dormant in the winter. The company has been increasing its percentage of the blueberries in Florida.

Benefits are earlier production, which lengthens Florida’s very short harvest window, Greeff said. 

“Laborers can pick on the farm for several weeks,” he added, so they will stay local for longer.

Joe Cornelius, president of J&B Blueberry Farms Inc. in Manor, Ga., said he’s hunting for a higher production variety that would also yield better-tasting, firmer and easier-to-pick fruit. He’s working with the University of Georgia and has trialed some on his property.

Another industry need is accurate and standardized ways to estimate crop production earlier in the season.

The Florida Blueberry Growers Association secured a $135,000 research grant last year to develop a system to forecast yield.

Florida’s industry, with its short, 20-week season, is facing pressure from other states and expanding Mexican acreage, the association said in a press release.

Cline, the blueberry specialist, said a ripening model is a goal for all researchers. The university has been internally estimating crop readiness for years based on chill and heat data, but its system is unique to the state. 

“I think we will have region-specific models; I think it will happen by state first, and then on a larger scale,” Cline said.

Jerome Crosby, chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission in Manor, Ga., said the commission has funded several grants to develop a methodology for determining conventional and organic blueberry acreage and varieties.

Imports are also an issue for the Southeastern states.

Cline said Mexican fruit volumes during Florida’s and Georgia’s harvest windows have risen significantly recently. Growers blame the fruit for declining prices.

In Georgia, blueberry imports from Mexico, in particular, are a “growing concern” of the state commission, because they can sell for 30% to 40% below market price, and volumes are increasing, Crosby said.

Brian Bocock, vice president of product management for Grand Junction, Mich.-based Naturipe Farms, said Mexico is having a “significant effect” on the two states in April to the first weeks in May. 

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