By Elizabeth Ashby
It has really only been about two decades since farmers in Florida decided to tackle the tough task of growing blueberries commercially in the state. Unlike other states to the North, Florida’s climate holds great promise for getting the fruit to market much earlier.
But to capitalize on that earlier production cycle, growers also have to overcome a whole host of other obstacles: a soil not conducive to the crop; an increased threat of freezes; and a blueberry bush that isn’t strong enough for mechanical harvesting.
Varieties that make the cut
Dr. Paul Lyrene, professor of horticultural sciences with the University of Florida, Gainesville, has been working with blueberries since 1977. He was trained as a plant breeder, had worked in south Florida as a sugar cane breeder for three years, and then got the opportunity to move to Gainesville.
“I thought it was an interesting crop and Gainesville was an interesting place,” Lyrene says.
When he first started his blueberry research, almost all the blueberries in Florida were the rabbiteye variety, which ripens from May 20 through early August, Lyrene says. The variety is native in the panhandle and southeastern Florida, is draught tolerant, vigorous and has a high yield. At that time, all the blueberries in the state were sold at pick-your-own operations, and there were about 300 or 400 acres of rabbiteyes in the state, he says.
Today, the industry has turned almost entirely to the southern highbush blueberry because of the variety’s earlier ripening schedule, which continues to get harder and harder to define, Lyrene says.
“Historically, the season has been April 1 through May 20, but it is harder to define because we have varieties that have been ripening for more than a month already under plastic in Gainesville. As the industry has moved farther south, there is even some March production,” Lyrene says.
Dr. Jeff Williamson, fruit & nut specialist with the UF/IFAS Horticultural Sciences Department, says a lot of Florida growers who are growing for commercial markets grow the southern highbush because of the high price they get for that early season fruit.
“The prices for commercial blueberries are five times a good early in the spring than they are in the summer,” Williamson says. But, he adds the southern highbush is a lot more difficult to grow. Rabbiteyes, on the other hand, are very resilient, he says, adding, “In fact, it is difficult to kill them once they become established.”