Organic blueberries are not on the plate for many Southeastern growers as they cite insufficient demand compared to the costs and the region’s disease-prone humid climate. Still, some see the value of offering organic blueberries from the Southeast.
Katiana Valdes, marketing director for Crystal Valley Foods, Miami, Fla., said the company will offer organic blueberries from Florida in 6-ounce clamshell packages.
Organic fruit is on the plate for Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll’s Inc. — but only from its West Coast crops, where the bushes in the drier climate are less likely to get root rot, fungus and other diseases, and so possibly need less pesticides, said Mark Greeff, vice president and general manager of the Eastern region.
But other growers have found ways to deal with the Southeastern issues, and are ramping up organic volumes.
Once the 600 acres of blueberries throughout Florida that grower and blueberry contractor Wish Farms Inc. in Plant City, Fla., represents are harvested this year, 400,000 pounds will be organic, up from 120,000 last year, said Teddy Koukoulis, director of blueberry operations. The fields are in their second year of production.
“I think demand is up overall,” Koukoulis said.
He jointly owns, with Wish Farms’ owner and its chief operating officer, a 44-acre organic operation in Central Florida where 15-gallon containerized blueberry bushes grow under tunnels, or hoops, in a substrate of pine bark and soil.
The operation is fully automated, and water is controlled through sensors. Containers reduce the chance for disease to spread between plants, he added.
With 400 acres of blueberries in Alma, Ga., Alma Nursery & Berry Farms is a larger grower, as well as a wholesale nursery and packer. The business also plans to increase its dedicated organic acreage.
Brandon Wade, operations manager for Alma and president of the Georgia Blueberry Growers Association, also in Alma, and a grower, said the business intends to add to its current 40 organic acres but is also replacing older varieties.
The organic fruit may start around May 25 but is typically harvested in later-season.
North Carolina has at least 500 acres of organic berries, estimates North Carolina State University blueberry specialist Bill Cline, and while a small percentage compared to conventional, it’s increasing.
There are pros and cons, however, he added.
“Because there’s lots of rain, there’s more weed pressure, and diseases like fruit rot, and fungal pathogens pressures,” he said. “They are almost absent in dry climates.”
Brick Rooks, owner president of Southern Belle Organics, Whiteville, N.C., said the company is expanding its acreage of organic blueberries and vegetables. The company has about 250 bearing acres of blueberries, but by 2021 should be harvesting from 650 acres, Rooks said.
The North American Blueberry Council does not currently break out organic production numbers in its North America and individual states’ reports, but aims to start doing that next year, said Rick Ruckman, who handles data and compliance for the council, because more growers are reporting as certified organic.
The Georgia Blueberry Commission also wants to report organic blueberry acreage, and has approved a grant to fund Georgia State University researchers to develop a methodology for determining the amount, said Jerome Crosby, the commission’s chair. The commission has awarded several grants recently to find a way to also count acreage for conventional blueberries and the different varieties, Crosby added.
The data can then be used for several different purposes, such as crop insurance, he said.
“All the various agencies responsible for getting that (crop acreage) data all have conflicting information,” Crosby said.