Growers Look To Blueberries For New Cash Crop

By:
Sylvia K. Beauchamp

Source(s):
Thomas Obreza (941) 658-3400
Paul Lyrene (352) 392-4711

GAINESVILLE—The conventional wisdom that says blueberries belong up north with apples and peaches is being turned on its head by University of Florida researchers.

Blueberries do, after all, like it hot.

In a three-year trial, a researcher at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has shown that blueberries can survive — actually thrive — in South Florida’s heat.

“The trial went even better than I ever thought it would,” said Associate Professor Thomas Obreza, of the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.

Obreza used varieties developed for use in the southeastern United States but never before tried in South Florida. The plants grew well, produced a large quantity of fruit and the quality was high, he said.

That’s good news for Ken Patterson, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.

“We always knew more people would grow blueberries if they were more heat-tolerant,” Patterson said. “Per capita blueberry consumption goes up every year, so interest in growing them is going up, too.”

There are bucks in berries, too. Florida’s blueberries already ripen at a time when they are the only fresh blueberries available in the world. Obreza’s trial blueberries ripened even a little earlier, meaning South Florida berries could command top dollar.

Florida’s earliest berries now come in around April 1 and sometimes bring prices up to $10 a pound. In contrast, berries that come in around May 1 draw only $5 a pound.

Obreza said blueberries normally require a “chilling” dormant period like they get in traditional blueberry regions such as Michigan and New Jersey. No one ever tried growing them in subtropical South Florida.

“Now we’re very optimistic that this is a crop that could work down here,” Obreza said. “Since our berries would be the earliest of all, there’s a lot of potential for expansion.”

Obreza said blueberries provide a lot of production off small acreage, with a 10-acre plot considered large. Their eight-week harvest season leaves time for growing other crops along with blueberries, although the plants require care throughout the year.

UF/IFAS scientist Paul Lyrene, a blueberry breeder, said blueberries are a relatively new crop but consumer demand for them is booming.

“The notion of growing blueberries is less than 100 years old, and in Florida, we’ve only been growing them since about 1960,” Lyrene said. “It took a while for the market channels to develop but worldwide, there’s been a tremendous increase in interest in growing blueberries.”

The health benefits of eating blueberries have contributed to their popularity, Lyrene said. Blueberries contain anti-oxidants, which slow the development of cancer and reduce blood-clotting that can lead to stroke and heart attack.

Consumers also like blueberries’ shelf life, which is longer than other berries. And, blueberries are the only small fruit crop that can be harvested by machine for the fresh market, Lyrene said, making them attractive to growers.

Two varieties released by UF for the upcoming growing season should be a particular boon for the blueberry industry in North Florida, Lyrene said. Star and Southmoon produce flavorful berries and ripen only 60 days after flowering, Lyrene said.

“These varieties are better because of the excellent quality the berries have after being shipped across the country and held on the grocery shelf for 10 days,” Lyrene said. “The ability to maintain quality under these conditions is a prerequisite for having a successful international market for Florida fruit.

“If these two new varieties yield well, they would greatly reduce the cost of producing blueberries in Florida, which would cause a rapid expansion of the acreage in the state,” Lyrene said.

Patterson, of the Blueberry Growers Association, said he is looking forward to the new varieties and the continuing research in Immokalee on varieties for South Florida.

“We’ve got 2,000 acres planted now and we’re ranked fifth among blueberry-producing states. Who knows how much we could grow,” Patterson said. “We’re really getting on track.”

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