Blueberry Bonanza

02/01/2007 02:00:00 AM
Tom Burfield

Blueberries are predominantly hand-picked, but the advent of mechanical harvesting could change the business plan. A 10-acre farm currently requires 70 workers for picking, and labor costs add up to $1 per pound. (Photo by Tom Karst, The Packer)

To some extent, Florida's blueberry growers are becoming victims of their own success. As the popularity of the berries has taken off, growers in the Sunshine State have managed to capitalize so well on their relatively tiny mid-March to mid-May shipping window that others are starting to take notice.

Growers in Chile are extending their season and increasing shipments 25 percent every year. Mexican growers are building their own blueberry program. Spain already has adopted some of the same varieties that Florida produces. As a result, some of the European export market that U.S. growers formerly enjoyed has been snatched away, says Dave Bowe, president of Dave's Specialty Imports, Coral Springs.

"Florida has a target on its back," says Donna Miller, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, Island Grove. "Everybody wants this window."

Domestic growers inside and outside the state also are establishing new blueberry programs. One thousand acres of blueberries are planned by 2008 for the 18,000-acre Clear Springs community now in development in Polk County, according to the Clear Springs development company's Web site,

Clear Springs owns the land and set up the infrastructure but has recruited two existing growers, Bill Braswell of Polkdale Farms, Auburndale, and Jack Green of Jack Green Farms Inc., Zolfo Springs, to run the operation in exchange for a percentage of the profits. So far, 150 acres have been planted.

Blueberry acreage in Florida is estimated at 2,500 to 3,000 acres, up from about 2,000 acres in 2001. The state produced a record 6 million pounds in 2006, according to Mark Villata, executive director of the Folsom, Calif.-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council -- a significant increase from 4.7 million pounds in 2005.

Opportunity abounds

There's still room for growth in the state's blueberry industry before prices start to decline, says Paul Lyrene, professor of horticulture at the University of Florida in Gainesville. But the amount of room is not known, and some growers say they're already experiencing some deflation in prices.

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