Blueberry Bonanza

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

Blueberries are relatively new to Florida, cropping up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Alto Straughn, owner of Straughn Farms near Gainesville and a member of the growers association's board of directors.

So far, blueberry farming in Florida has been highly profitable.

Average price per pound before April 15 has been more than $4, Lyrene says, significantly higher than the $1 per pound or less that growers in other states typically fetch when their crops come on later in the year.

The state's early season highbush cultivars are the first blueberries to ripen in North America, Lyrene says. They're harvested from early April to late May, and nearly all are for the fresh market.

Since growing blueberries is so lucrative, getting into the market has crossed the minds of many farmers, including a number of citrus growers. But those who are in the business warn that the rewards don't come easy. Starting a blueberry operation isn't cheap, and the current high prices won't last forever.

Hard work

Straughn says he has done quite well with the blueberry operation he started in 1983, but success has been hard won.

"We've been through a struggle for the last 15 to 20 years trying to develop a blueberry industry (in Florida)," he says.

Straughn started with the rabbiteye variety. But after a grueling 10-year learning curve, he, like most of the state's growers, switched to higher-yielding highbush varieties. He also grows watermelon and raises cattle, but he says blueberries have paid off best.

When others ask him whether they, too, should get into the blueberry business, he simply presents the pros and cons. While they have proved to be lucrative, Straughn says blueberries are the toughest crop to keep healthy and alive that he's ever dealt with.

Florida has little of the specialized soil needed to grow the berries, so growers modify the soil with a pine-bark culture.

Cost to produce an acre of blueberries typically ranges from $15,000 to $18,000 per acre, Straughn says. That includes $5,000 to $6,000 for a freeze-protection system but does not include the cost of  land.

Go south

As a blueberry grower, Ken Patterson, partner and general manager at Island Grove Ag Products in Hawthorne, isn't eager to see competition. But as a seller of blueberry plants, he stands to gain when more people set out to make their fortune in the fruit.

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