Growing blueberries in Louisiana

Photos courtesy of Hillcrest Blueberry Farm.
After hilling up his rows, Alexander can plant new vines in the soft, sandy soil with a shovel.

It’s not often that you hear the words “blueberry farm” and “Louisiana” in the same sentence, but Chris Alexander is making it more common. He has taken a former dairy farm in the hot, humid climate of DeSoto Parish and made it a prime location for growing quality blueberries.

“In 1992, we planted the first 50 acres of blueberries,” Alexander recalls, who now has 139 acres. A former dairyman along with his father John, he was thinking how to make a living as dairies went out of business around them. He heard how profitable blueberries were and decided to try them.

He discovered that his sandy loam soil with a pH around 5 was excellent for the plants. Planting four varieties of rabbit-eyes—Tifblue, Brightwell, Premier and Climax—Alexander immediately became the largest blueberry grower in the area. He has since replaced the Climax variety with Austin. When the family’s dairy shut down, he went right into a profitable crop and created the Hillcrest Blueberry Farm in Gloster.

It has been a learning process for Alexander. His original planting spacing of 12 feet between rows and 5 feet between plants has worked out fine, but he has had to gradually modify how he prepares the ground. The sand depth of about 2 feet isn’t enough for good drainage, so he has a system where he hills up the rows between furrows. After subsoiling a new field to a depth of 18 inches, he loosens up the soil with a 10-foot tandem disk without the front gangs in about eight passes, throwing the soil to the center of the row. Then, he comes in with a banked blade to throw more dirt on the rows.

Good employees and $400,000 worth of processing and cold storage equipment help ensure that the farm ships premium-quality blueberries.

He’s aiming for rows 18 inches high and 4 feet across, so when he plants in that soft material all his crews have to do is dig holes with round-pointed shovels. The rows flatten out over time. He plants 1-gallon plants, breaking up the root balls and putting pine bark mulch in the hole with the soil for organic mulch. He comes in later with a 5-foot disk to flatten out the furrow for ease of tractor travel.

This has been a winning combination, with good plant survival from November to January plantings. After planting, he stretches .5-inch poly drip tubing through the fields, using 1-gallon-per-hour punch-in emitters next to the plants. Even as the plants mature, that’s enough water (the average rainfall is 55 inches here), though he will have to increase irrigation through scheduling over the years.

His first fertilizer application, ammonium sulfate applied through fertigation, is in the spring when the bushes leaf out. Then, he fertilizes once a week until two weeks before harvest in June. In three years, the plants yield enough fruit for hand-picking, and he hand-picks for two years. In the fifth year, he goes to mechanical harvesting.

Pruning is important in this lush growing climate, but not very demanding. His crew uses hand loppers to remove older wood out of the center of the plant. Topping of mature plants is recommended, Alexander says, but he topped his oldest bushes at eight years and hasn’t had to do it since then. The only other pruning he does is to take off low-hanging branches so he can mow the middle of his furrows with a Bush Hog and spray herbicides without touching the plant. Herbicides are only necessary when plants are young and the ground around them exposed.

“Once plants get older they will shade the weeds out,” Alexander says. Until then, he uses Surflan preemergent and Roundup contact herbicides applied with backpack sprayers. It requires a lot of labor to do it this way, but Alexander wants absolute control of the herbicides. Mowing the native grasses and weeds that grow up between rows controls and prevents erosion in this hilly landscape.

It is another kind of pest that Alexander has had to work hard to learn to control.

“I’m just noticing more and more of them every year,” he says of the thrips and cranberry fruit worms. “This year, I’m on a full-blown spraying schedule. I don’t want to sell any fruit that has worms in it.”

Using University of Georgia recommendations for blueberry pests, Alexander has found an insecticide rotation that works well. He says cranberry fruit worms are the “ugliest” pest, but thrips are the costliest. He begins his thrips rotation at 10 to 20 percent bloom using malathion and SpinTor until plants are at 80 percent bloom to prevent flower damage. Diazinon is used from pre-bloom to green-tip as needed. Cranberry fruit worms are treated with malathion from petal fall to about a month after bloom.

Following university guidelines, he is trying to hit the insect pests early. He has also ordered Admire 2F this year because he knows he is going to have some late problems with sharpshooters, which cause bacteria leaf scorch. To combat fungal diseases, he has mapped out a complete fungus control program that started in March, four days after green-tip, with a tank mix of Indar and Captan. Ten days after that he sprayed with Pristine. He is trying to avoid anthracnose and mummy berries, and if he does it right he will not have to spray during the summer months.

The first harvest starts about the first of June, with the hand-picking of the youngest plants. The varieties follow somewhat in succession, with the Tifblues being the heaviest producers and coming in the third week of June. He has a Korvan 8000 Dynarotor self-propelled, one-row harvester, which uses a horizontal shaking action advantageous in blueberries.

From there, the blueberries go to the 6,000-square-foot on-farm packing facility, where he can cold-store 36 pallets of fruit. The facility has a blower/cleaner, a sizer, a color sorter (which takes the place of eight people), and a tilt table that separates good berries from clusters and soft fruit. The fruit goes through minute inspection before being packed into 1-pint clamshells. He can pack 300 12-pint flats per hour.

Alexander says it costs $3,000 to $4,000 to plant an acre of blueberries—“if you don’t count the cost of the land.” He planted another 46 acres last November and was still finishing up with late plant arrivals in early February. He also has about $400,000 in his processing plant.

His yield in mature bushes is 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of fruit per acre. Alexander was hampered last year by being in a poor marketing pool in which he wasn’t rewarded for having high-quality fruit. Therefore, he has joined Interstate Express Logistics, a blueberry shipper/marketer that specializes in the highest- quality fruit. Rabbiteye varieties grown in the south will yield larger and softer berries, but they can be high in quality.

Louisiana blueberries are larger and softer than northern fruit, but sweet and high-quality.

Alexander says that one of the secrets to his success is in finding good workers and retaining them. He values his employees and tries to take care of them.

His goal is to eventually yield up to 600,000 pounds of berries on his acreage as it matures. He also wants to move away from the wholesale trade and grow his retail business, which currently consists of a “blueberry bar” for on-farm customers to buy fresh or frozen fruit. Customers can also pick their own blueberries in a designated plot.

“The money is in agritourism,” he notes. He and his wife are planning to expand into a farm store that also offers other products, such as purchased jams, along with blueberry products, such as juices processed on the farm.

Alexander is proving that “Louisiana blueberries” is not an oxymoron, and, in fact, can be a very delicious combination of words.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.