Blueberries ripen up in Florida. The 2018 crop has seen a higher than normal number of chill hours during the growing season, which is good for berry size and sweetness, growers say. ( Photo courtesy Blue Farms Inc. )

An extended period of warm, dry conditions — uncommon even to Florida — during the winter growing season has drawn rave reviews from growers.

They described the conditions, which enhanced size and quality, as more suited to April than January and February.

However, fruit growers said they also received more than adequate chill hours needed for berries and other items.

“We look really good in Florida,” said Teddy Koukoulis, blueberry operations director with Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms. “The one thing we’ve had this year that we haven’t had in several years is a good amount of chill.”

Growers in South Florida reported as many as 60 chill hours, compared to a normal of 0-5, Koukoulis said.

Central Florida had nearly 200 chill hours, and the Gainesville area, 200-300, he said.

Chill hours create better fruit, Koukoulis said.

“When you get chill, you get a bigger, sweeter berry,” he said.

Daytime temperatures in the 80s have sped up the growth cycle, rounding out an ideal situation for the spring crop of blueberries, Koukoulis said.

“Now, we’ve got plenty of heat, so the berries are moving,” he said in late February. “It’s setting up to be a good production year and good year for quality, as well.”

It also created a timely start to the spring berry deal, he said.

“Timing is everything, of course, and we’re going to see some decent volume in mid-to late March and good volume into April,” he said.

Growers anticipate a strong spring blueberry market, Koukoulis said.

“I think the market’s shaping up to be pretty good this year,” he said.

As of Feb. 23, flats of 12 1-pound lidded cups of large Chilean blueberries were $18-22, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year earlier, the same item was $22-26.50.

“Prices are rising, but we’re still in the Chilean market now,” Koukoulis said Feb. 22. “We just don’t have enough volume in Florida to move the needle, but it’s coming.”

Wish Farms also offers organic blueberries, and that crop was progressing nicely, Koukoulis said.

“It’s setting up to be a good organics year,” he said, noting Wish Farms probably will have 250,000 pounds of organic fruit from Florida this year, compared to 100,000 pounds a year ago.

Strawberries are Wish Farms’ largest crop, at about 60%, compared to 30% for blueberries, Koukoulis said. The company will wind up its strawberry season around April 1, he said.

In all, Florida blueberry production consists of about 7,000 acres and 1,000 growers, said Brittany Lee, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association in Gainesville.

Across the state, growers are expecting a timely harvest, Lee said.

“December (cold) weather pushed some of the flower development a little behind, but all this hot weather in January and February sped it up,” she said.

Florida shipped about 20 million pounds of blueberries in 2017, and a similar volume is expected this year, Lee said.

Florida’s blueberry season generally runs from mid-March to mid-May, Lee said.

 

Valencia season

In citrus, grapefruit production was winding down, but valencia oranges should be available until May, with storage crop available into June, said Al Finch, president of Florida Classic Growers, the marketing arm of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association in Dundee, Fla.

“On valencias, we’ve had good arrivals, and we are anticipating a good season,” he said. “Overall, the season has been good on valencia oranges.”

Markets were a couple of dollars higher this year than 2017, Finch said, noting that movement was steady.

 

Florida peaches

Florida’s peach season was on schedule to start at the end of March and run into mid-May, Finch said.

“We’re anticipating an excellent season,” he said. “We were able to get the appropriate chill hours needed for maximum yield and production, and we anticipate an excellent season.”

April is a big month for Florida peaches, Finch said.

“Florida typically has an exclusive window of available during month of April,” he said. “Traditionally, Florida peaches start as Chile exits the marketplace and before California, South Carolina or Georgia enter the market. So, there’s a four-week exclusive market window in April.”

 
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