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Georgia blueberry growers approach 20,000 acres, maneuver to take top spot in domestic production

Georgia is not the first place one thinks of when blueberries are mentioned, nor does one think of that fruit when the Peach State is mentioned. But steady growth based on early bearing varieties has in recent years positioned Georgia to compete for the title of the nation's top blueberry producing state.

Despite crazy weather and a March freeze that erased part of the crop, Georgia is still looking at bringing 70 million pounds of blueberries to market from almost 20,000 acres of orchards.GA-Blueberries-2Georgia has quietly crept into contention for the title of the nation's top blueberry-producing state, with as much as 22,000 acres in the ground. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Blueberry Commission)

That said, other growing regions are encroaching on what was once Georgia's exclusive late spring market window, and operating in a global economy has its challenges.

An atypically cool spring will delay the start of the deal by seven to 10 days -- maybe. It is a matter of perspective. Georgia's production and market windows have been moving targets in recent years.

"The cool here the last month or so has really slowed things down, it's like we had spring in late December and January and we were in winter most of March and it's cooling off again in April," said Joe Cornelius, owner of J&B Blueberry Farms Inc. in Manor, GA, and chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission. "Our bloom-to-ripe date seems to be stretching out a little but overall the crop is still looking mighty strong, still in that 70 million pound range. On my personal farm I can see where I had damage back in early February where I really didn't think I'd have damage, but overall, with the new acreage that's coming online 70 million pounds is going to be doable if weather doesn't stop us."

Earlier in the year, Georgia farmers believed they might start harvesting the first week of April. In reality, that did not happen until the end of the month, which is typically when the Georgia deal begins. The question remains whether this crop is late or in a normal window.

"Normally my farm would start picking the last week or so of April; that looks like what's going to happen again this year," Mr. Cornelius said in mid-April. "Four weeks ago we were counting on being started hot and heavy by now. We're actually going to get back to a more normal -- if there's such a thing in farming as normal -- little more traditional type harvest window."

Georgia's success as a blueberry producer is making it difficult for growers to discern where they stand, to some degree. The U.S. Department of Agriculture literally cannot keep track of growth in the Georgia blueberry deal. While the USDA counts 14,000 acres of Georgia blueberries, Mr. Cornelius said the actual acreage may be half-again that much.

"USDA goes off of what the county extension agents turn in, that's the bracket that follows, so it's always two to four years behind," Mr. Cornelius explained. "Looking around at the nurseries and the ground being cleared, and there are several of us growers who have discussed this, it looks like there are 20,000 to 22,000 acres in the ground now though USDA says 14,000. Ride around little dirt roads you haven't been down in a few years that were all timber and row crops and now there's 10 to 20 acres of blueberries nobody knew about. Where we're going to end up I don't know, but 24,000 to 26,000 looks real possible in the next few years, very possible. How much of that will stay in production as the market corrects itself I don't know."

That market correction is inevitable as the industry grows. Smaller growers might well be pushed out of the game as bigger players continue to come on. Meanwhile, first Florida, then other players and even Chile have crept into Georgia's market window.

"Chile's pushing back. Florida's exclusivity in the window is closed and it's the same thing for Georgia," Mr. Cornelius said. "Traditionally in the past 20 years we had that second, third, fourth week of May with North Carolina, and then June almost completely to ourselves before New Jersey and Michigan came on. Over the last 10 to 15 years New Jersey's been planting varieties that pushed back the start date. All of a sudden that empty window has Florida, California, Mexico, North Carolina and New Jersey in playing in it."

Price has driven production in the Peach State. Lack of supply made $6 a pound berries standard during the previously slack months of May-June and October-November, "so guess where everybody's been planting the last 10 years?" Mr. Cornelius asked.

"I've talked with some very smart people that, 10 years ago when they started planting into that May window at $6 a pound, are now getting $2.50 a pound and they act shocked that the law of supply and demand has an effect there. And we are very definitely in a global economy, farmers have been in it for years, there's been no real protection and if anything our [foreign] competitors have true advantages. We have growers in this country that have financial ties to our competitors so it's all a big mess. We're back to the strongest will survive."