Despite a February freeze that wiped out half of the early season crop, Georgia blueberry growers will still bring as many as 60 million pounds of fruit to the market this season.
While the hard freeze clobbered the state’s early-season Southern highbush variety, its later-season rabbiteye variety escaped virtually unscathed, meaning tons of fresh Georgia blueberries will be available through mid-June.
Those numbers may come as a surprise for those unfamiliar with Georgia’s growing blueberry production, which has ramped up dramatically in recent years.
“When you tell people you’re a Georgia blueberry grower, they look at you funny — ‘You grow blueberries in Georgia?’ ” said Joe Cornelius, chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission and president of J&B Blueberry Farms in Manor, GA. Not only does the state grow blueberries, “We are positioning to become the national leader. Georgia has really blown up in the last 10 or 12 years as far as number of acres in the dirt and we’re also seeing some increase in [yields]. It is unreal.”
University of Georgia Extension agents estimate there are 14,000 acres of blueberries in the state. But Mr. Cornelius said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if they aren’t at least 30 percent off. I wouldn’t be shocked to see that we’re at 20,000-22,000 acres.”
A few years ago, Georgia blueberry production was just over 30 million pounds annually. Last year, the state did 59 million pounds despite some “pollination issues — if we hadn’t had those, we’d have gone to 75 million pounds,” Mr. Cornelius said.
So how did Georgia’s blueberry deal come on so quickly? A dozen or so years ago, when the extraordinary health benefits of the fruit were just becoming known, Georgia farmers studied the U.S. production calendar and realized there was room for more product in the May-June window.
“When the health benefits came out and blueberries went beyond a niche product into the limelight, we spent some money trying to manipulate and crossbreed a berry that would come in that window,” Mr. Cornelius explained.
Those efforts were successful. The Southern highbush blueberry is the same one that created an overnight blueberry industry in Florida in the past decade. And while that is the same variety that got hurt by the freeze, losses represented only about a quarter of the annual crop.
Proof that Georgia has become a major supplier of blueberries comes in the repositioning of the peak period for U.S. production. Traditionally, July and August have been the peak months for domestic blueberry production, but “we’re slowly moving that production peak from the New Jersey-Michigan window down into the Georgia window” in May-June, when production from several other states comes on as well, Mr. Cornelius said.
Twenty years ago, U.S. consumers never thought about fresh blueberries from October-April. Then Chile became a major player, filling that winter gap, Florida developed its industry, which picks up in April as Chile ends, and Georgia’s blossoming production begins as the Florida deal is winding down.
Like practically every other crop grown in the Western Hemisphere this year, Georgia’s blueberry deal is early by about two weeks. Harvest actually began in April and will ramp up dramatically when the rabbiteye crop comes on.
“The rabbiteye crop looks really big, and is going to be on by mid-May,” Mr. Cornelius said. “That will run into at least mid-June. But then they’re forecasting New Jersey starting by June 5-7; New Jersey usually brings the price down hard, they have a huge peak in a very short period.”