SOUTH FEATURES


Small Fruit, Big Crop

More growers betting on blueberries in Florida
By Patrick White


When it comes to fruit in Florida, citrus will always be king. However, over the last two decades a smaller crop has been making big strides in the Sunshine State. Blueberries, typically associated with cooler climates, are now being successfully produced throughout Florida as growers have found ways to adapt growing practices to the warm temperatures and sandy soils.


Irrigation is sometimes used to freeze blueberry plants in order to protect them from heavy frosts. "You have to have overhead in just about all of our production regions because our varieties bloom early enough that there's a very good chance of freezes," explains Gary England, extension agent with the University of Florida/ IFAS Extension.
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"Blueberries have only been a real business here for about the last 15 years," explains Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association (www.floridablueber rygrowers.com). "Prior to that there were only a few people doing it and not any real acreage to speak of." Back then 20 acres would have been considered a large blueberry farm. As studies began to show the health benefits of antioxidants, the value of blueberry crops increased dramatically and drew more growers into the field, he notes. "Blueberries became a high-value crop, and individuals started to see that they could make a good profit even on a small acreage," says Braswell. "So more growers got into blueberries, but many still on a small scale."


Bill Braswell is president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association and manages 400 acres of blueberries at Clear Springs Farms in Bartow, Fla.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF FLORIDA BLUEBERRY GROWERS ASSOCIATION UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Over the years, the number of large farms has increased. Braswell, for example, manages 400 acres of blueberries at Clear Springs Farms (www.clearspringsco.com) in Bartow, Fla. "And we're putting more acreage in every year," he says. Of course, as the number of growers has increased, the value of the crop for each individual farmer has dropped a little. However, as a state the overall figure has increased significantly, and Braswell estimates that blueberries will be a $100 million crop in Florida this year.

While the increase in growers is a relatively new phenomenon in the state, the University of Florida has been breeding blueberries for more than 30 years, according to Gary England. He works with blueberry and citrus growers as regional specialized extension agent with the University of Florida/IFAS Extension. England credits Dr. Paul Lyrene as "the father of the Florida blueberry industry." In fact, many of the varieties currently being grown in California and Chile come from the breeding work of Lyrene, who is now retired.

"At first, they were looking for varieties that would be extremely low-chill and produce in Florida," says Bill Braswell of the evolution in breeding objectives in the state. "Although our per-acre production is nowhere near that of the northern varieties, we do have varieties that do well in this very low-chill environment." While that remains a perpetual goal, breeding work is also being done to incorporate a number of other characteristics to help produce blueberry plants suited to the climate and needs of Florida growers.


Most blueberries in Florida are grown on raised rows of pine bark, which contributes much-needed organic matter for the plants, while also helping to provide a growing medium with the proper pH for the blueberry plants.

"Ultimately, the Florida grower is looking for a berry that will hit our market window [usually April], will produce a large crop, and is mechanically harvestable," says Braswell. There are varieties that accomplish one or more of these goals, but finding a plant that does all three remains elusive, he reports. In central Florida, there are currently about four or five major varieties being grown. "Everyone is trying the new varieties coming out of the university, but the results have been mixed," says Braswell. He blames part of that on the variable weather experienced in Florida in recent years, including two winters of significant chill and this current year with very little chill, which has made it difficult to fairly evaluate some of the plants.

Braswell says that current labor challenges, predicted to worsen in the future, have made breeding for firm blueberries a top priority. This would allow for more mechanical harvesting, he explains. "More and more farms are toying with mechanical harvesting, even with existing varieties," he says.

While breeding has produced plants capable of performing in the warm Florida weather, growers still need to provide some added help to ensure a good harvest. The blueberry plants need "chill accumulation" in order to help ensure good bud production and, therefore, a good harvest. That's obviously tough to come by naturally, when even in the dead of winter this January temperatures in the 80s were reported. Most Florida blueberry growers use a chemical, hydrogen cyanamide, to help spur the process along. "That chemical is why we can grow blueberries in Florida," says Braswell. The chemical is usually applied with air-blast sprayers in December. "I would say that it's about the equivalent of 100 chill hours, which satisfies the plant and causes it to go into the spring phase of flowering, leafing and moving forward with the crop," he states.

Typically, blueberry harvest in Florida comes in April, which gives the state a good market window between harvests to the south in Chile and just north in Georgia, says Braswell. "We sort of have April to ourselves," he notes.

It's not just Florida's temperatures that require special techniques in order to grow blueberries. The state's sandy soils pose another challenge. "We don't even grow the plants in the soil. We put pine bark on top of the soil and grow them in the pine bark," explains Braswell. The pine bark, he adds, contributes much-needed organic matter for the plants, while also helping to provide a growing medium with the proper pH for blueberry plants. "The pH of the pine bark is around 5 (far superior to the pH of 7 commonly found in natural soils), and obviously the organic matter is 100 percent. Blueberry plants just absolutely thrive in the stuff," he says.

England says that pine bark was once a plentiful and relatively inexpensive "waste product" that could be trucked from lumber operations in northern Florida and neighboring Georgia. Now, however, increased fuel prices have led many mills to burn the pine bark as a form of fuel, which has shrunk the supply available to Florida blueberry growers and, therefore, raised the costs.

In past years, many growers simply windrowed the pine bark on top of the native sand. With less availability and higher prices, more growers are attempting to incorporate the pine bark into the sand, says England. "Pine bark has become quite expensive, and it needs to be supplemented every couple of years after it has initially been put in the field," England states. "By incorporating the pine bark into the soil, you need less of it and your water management is a lot easier to handle."

Keeping the blueberry plants watered is a major consideration in the hot Florida climate. In the past, most growers used overhead irrigation, primarily because this approach provides a way to water the plant during hot spells, and it can also be used to help protect the plants during cold snaps. "You have to have overhead in just about all of our production regions because our varieties bloom early enough that there's a very good chance of freezes," England explains. "If you're going to hit the market window that we have, you absolutely must have freeze protection." He says he currently sees a trend toward "hybrid" systems that retain overhead irrigation for protection and incorporate the efficiency and efficacy benefits of drip irrigation.

"Drip irrigation and fertigation are relatively new concepts to Florida blueberry growers. It wasn't really used at all here five years ago, but many farms now have gone to using drip irrigation and fertigation," says Braswell. "Most people are injecting acid-forming fertilizer as well as sulfuric acid," he says of the combination intended to fertilize the plants and also keep the pH in check.

Planting blueberries in Florida is done year-round, though winter is the preferred season. "The heat stress in the summer is pretty severe, so you really have to stay on top of the water then," Braswell observes. The climate also takes a toll on the plants even after they are established. "Ten years is a long time for a blueberry plant in Florida to live; the life span is pretty short," he says. With new and improved varieties coming on the market all the time, few growers feel the need to commit to a particular type of plant longer than 10 years anyhow, he adds. "By then, they want to change it out for something better."


Fifteen to 20 years ago, there were few blueberry growers in the state, and most were small operations. Today, there are larger growers and expanded acreage devoted to blueberries, which is now roughly a $100 million crop in Florida.

Braswell says the Florida Blueberry Growers Association has played a vital role in helping the state's blueberry growers communicate about new varieties and techniques. The group has been around for decades and has grown from a handful of members to a membership of about 350. The group holds two meetings each year, which he says has proven to be a critical conduit for growers to get the latest information. Attendance at the meetings recently has been about 500 people, Braswell adds. "The organization, I believe, has certainly been critical to the success of the business in Florida," he says, adding that the state's blueberry industry is still young enough that there's a tremendous amount being learned every year, and new techniques and tools being tried. "We certainly haven't hit our peak yet, I don't think. There's a lot of people jumping into the business with 50 and 100-acre blueberry farms, some of whom are novices at growing any kind of berry." In other cases, experienced citrus and strawberry growers are transitioning over to blueberries.


The University of Florida has been breeding blueberries for more than 30 years, and continues to work toward varieties that perform well in the Florida climate and meet the needs of growers in the state. Currently, breeding for firm blueberries is a top priority because it would allow for more mechanical harvesting and reduce the need for labor.
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For those getting into growing blueberries, the list of equipment required isn't too extensive, says Braswell: "Really, all you need are a tractor, a sprayer, a fertilizer spreader and you're in business."

Of course, there are start-up costs beyond equipment to consider, and these can be more costly, adds England. For example, the costs of simply purchasing and shipping the necessary pine bark - not including putting it down out in the field - can cost $5,000 to $7,000 per acre. Add in the cost of the blueberry plants, overhead irrigation and other necessary equipment, and start-up costs can top $20,000 per acre, he estimates.

As far as ongoing costs, Braswell says that weed control is probably the most common reason for spraying in the blueberry fields. "Application of herbicides represents a large percentage of our caretaking costs; a lot of that spraying is done by hand," he explains. "The blueberry plants themselves don't need a lot - they don't need a lot of fertilizer or fungicide - they take care of themselves pretty well."

Like everyone in agriculture, blueberry growers in Florida face some disease and insect pressure. At the moment they are concerned about the spotted wing drosophila. The insect can lay an egg just before harvest that can result in the appearance of a maggot after the fruit has been harvested. "It's an invasive. So far it hasn't been a big issue, but it has the potential to be a tremendous issue for the blueberry industry here," says England. Monitoring is being done to try to keep ahead of the problem, he adds.

When it comes to diseases, there are some rusts that can appear, but typically those can be handled relatively easily. Of more concern is Botryosphaeria stem dieback, which can appear on the ends of branches and, if not physically cut off and removed, can work itself all the way back into the ground and kill the entire plant, says England: "You can go from something that's affecting just a tiny percentage of the plant, but if it's not addressed can ruin the whole plant in less than a year and a half." It's particularly important to watch for this during propagation, when the disease can be moved from plant to plant when cuttings are taken.

England says the industry standard for plant densities in Florida had been 8-foot rows with 2.5 feet between plants within each row. "But that's widening out, which is good," he says, "because you can't really do any spraying or mowing once the crop is set; you can't physically get down the rows." By expanding to 9 or 10-foot rows, it's much easier to get tractors and other equipment down the rows without damaging the plants or berries. England says the improved management this allows for should compensate for the decreased density of plants per acre. "I think once those fields are established, I don't think the yields will be affected all that much. I've seen 12-foot rows [on blueberry farms] in California, and they were getting tremendous yields."

As Florida's blueberry industry continues to mature, England expects that new varieties and techniques will continue to be developed that allow a once cool-climate crop to continue its growing record of success in Florida.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.