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Even as other players muscle in, Florida blueberry growers look forward to an excellent season

Even though Florida’s exclusive window as the producer of the first fresh blueberries of the calendar year is narrowing, production is ramping up and this year promises and abundant crop and ample returns to growers, despite a mild freeze in early March that damaged some fruit in the northern part of the state and nipped at the edges of central Florida fields.

Chilean growers are pushing their season further and further with storage shipments that first stretched almost-into and then penetrated Florida’s window, FL-Blues-1Blueberry cultivars from the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences developed the Florida blueberry industry, which has matured quickly. (Photo courtesy of USDA/ARS)which typically begins in mid-March and extends into early May. Meanwhile, Georgia growers are gambling on earlier and earlier start dates, threatening to cut into the tail end of Florida’s deal since the Georgia crop comes on right after the Sunshine State’s.

Still, it is not a bad time to be in the Florida blueberry business. Returns to growers last year averaged roughly $5 a pounds, according to Florida Blueberry Growers Association President Bill Braswell.

While returns may not reach such lofty levels this year, they will still be excellent and Florida growers have a high-quality crop coming to market.

Most growers expect pent-up demand to drive the market “especially this year. They had some really bad weather in Chile which has caused some quality issues,” said Ron Cottle of North Carolina-based Cottle Strawberry Nurseries, which has operations in several states, Chile, Mexico and Canada, and is packing its first Florida blueberries under its “Cottle Farms” label this year. “Everybody’s on us already for Florida to start. That’s why Florida appealed so much to us — it kind of opens up the rest of the season. What we packed here this morning [Feb. 28] was just beautiful.”

Florida’s blueberry deal has boomed in recent years but reached the first stages of maturity in 2012 and is now looking for its future footing.

“The growth in the business is starting to slow down, the marketing situation here is a little out of control and until it kind of corrects itself I don’t think you’re going to see the growth in the future,” Mr. Braswell said. “Every guy with a laptop and a cell phone is now a marketer. From the day the season starts they race to the bottom for price and the growers are seeing that. A lot of people are looking at blueberries and saying, ‘You know, it’s probably already peaked, I’ll look at another crop.’

He continued, “I don’t see the farms going in as quickly this year as I did last year and I am starting to see some of the small farms going by the wayside and I expect to see more of that. I’m shocked but that there are farms as large as 10-20 acres that are so unskilled in the business that they can’t make money and they’re just throwing in the towel. Whether they can’t grow properly or can’t manage their labor or don’t understand the perishability of the crop I don’t know, but a number are either looking to get out or have gotten out and thrown up their hands and I expect to see more of that.”

There is still room for much growth in the category and Mr. Braswell believes Florida farmers will have a banner year and a bright future, due in part to blueberries classification as a “superfood” and the seemingly endless stream of good health news about the fruit.

“The thing that everybody overlooks or ignores is that spinach is good for you, kidney beans are good for you, but maybe you don’t like the taste or preparing them,” Mr. Braswell said. “It doesn’t get any easier than blueberries. You pull ‘em off the bush, you rinse ’em off, you pop ‘em in your mouth. Throw some in a [plastic bag] and you’ve got lunch — just like fast food but it tastes good and is good for you. Blueberries have all that going for them and that’s why they’ve taken off so well.”