“The growers association was privileged to get a grant from the current farm bill. They are working with several growers scattered throughout the state. The FBGA has our current block grant, and we are applying for second block grant to fund research on mechanical harvesting and disease understanding,” Mixon says. “Several farms have taken an acre of their fields and will run them with similar care-taking methods. They will get results in three to four years.”
Evolving production practices
Williamson says no matter which variety growers select, they need at least two cultivars grown close together for cross-pollination, and three or four would be even better because the more mixing of pollen you get the better fruit set and the bigger the fruit will be.
When growers first took a stab at blueberries, they were trying to develop unique production practices and test methods that might work in Florida that wouldn’t in other growing regions. But over the years, researchers say growers are getting ever more conventional.
“Growers tried all different types of patterns, but now they look like ones in North Carolina and New Jersey,” Lyrene says. “The rows are 10 feet apart and plants are 3 feet apart within the row.”
Mixon says most of SunnyRidge’s growers work between 1,700 and 2,200 plants per acre.
Lyrene says an experienced grower with good yields can produce about 8,000 pounds of blueberries per acre in a year, which starts about the third year after planting.
Growers also have a duel irrigation system with overhead irrigation for freeze protection and drip for applying fertilizer and irrigation water, he says.
To increase yield per acre, some growers are using plastic tunnels, Lyrene says. This moves the harvest peak back to a more favorable harvest window, but also offers some additional benefits. For example, it allows growers to pick the fruit when it is raining outside, and berries are a lighter blue color because rain doesn’t wash off the fruit’s natural wax. Lyrene says this is a fairly small segment of Florida’s production due to high cost of buying and managing the tunnels, which are about 10 feet tall, each one enclosing about three to four rows.
Williamson says the university just planted four rows of blueberries for an organic trial. To help with weed control, the scientists put a ground cloth under the pine bark.