Set up shop in the southern part of the state if you're looking to start a small operation -- two to 10 acres, he recommends. Growing blueberries in the south is more difficult, but you'll get better prices. Patterson expects there will be a window for small growers between central and south Florida for at least 10 more years.
In central Florida, he recommends a minimum of 10- to 15-acre ranches, and he says a family-operated business still can be profitable.
Growers are learning how to get 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of blueberries per acre, which makes the fruit highly profitable compared with other cops, Patterson says.
South Florida growing regions generally start to harvest from mid- to late March, the central area begins around April 1, and growers in the north start from April 7-10. Shipments continue until Georgia growers start to harvest, usually around May 20.
"We have a very narrow window," says Miller of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.
One challenge with blueberries is that the bloom runs from the end of January until the end of March, when the state is most susceptible to freezes. That means you'll need a lot of water for freeze protection. Without freeze protection, Patterson says, "You'll never make it."
Labor -- or lack of it -- is another challenge. All of the state's fresh market berries are harvested by hand, Miller says. A 10-acre farm requires 70 workers just for picking. Labor costs add up to $1 per pound, she says.
Many larger growers are planting to accommodate mechanical harvesters. Mechanically harvested fruit is sold to processors, who pay less for blueberries than fresh market buyers. But the labor savings is considerable.
Blueberry acreage in Florida is estimated at 2,500 to 3,000 acres, up from 2,000 acres in 2001. (Photo by Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer)
Lyrene, the university professor, says switching to machine harvesting would be a "painful transition" because growers would have to abandon some of their favorite varieties, such as emerald, windsor and millennia, which are not suited for machine harvesting. But he adds, "It could be done faster than most people think."