Some current varieties could be harvested with machines, but some new varieties "would have to be rushed out quickly," he says.
Mechanical harvesting also delays the time of harvest by about a week. It will likely decrease yields, require fields to be planted to exact specifications to accommodate the machines, require instruction to operate and maintain the machines, which are very expensive, and it may require changes in packinghouse operations, Lyrene says. "It's not something growers are going to welcome," he says.
Some growers, including Miller, are considering launching organic blueberry deals as a hedge against an expected onslaught of conventional product in four to five years. However, that can be a challenge in Florida, where high humidity and summer rain make fungicide treatments almost unavoidable, she says.
As growers transition to organic over a three-year period, they would not be able to apply fungicides, yet they would not yet be able to label their product organic.
Strong export market
Miller says she still does a lot of exporting, but she used to ship even more product to Japan, England and France before Spain started filling many of those orders.
Consumers in Japan, Taiwan and other Asian nations have become big blueberry consumers because they are very health conscious, Patterson says. They plant their own berries but do not produce during Florida's window. Patterson estimates that he exports 10 percent to 20 percent of his blueberry crop.
Straughn says he exports 20 percent to 30 percent of his early, higher-priced berries to Japan and the United Kingdom. "Demand worldwide has gone up," he says. In fact, consumers in the United Kingdom are buying twice as many blueberries today as they were just a few years ago.
Promotions boost sales
Florida's blueberry crop benefits from promotions of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Villata says. Growers are assessed $12 per ton to support the council's efforts. The council disseminates news releases to publicize early season as well as midseason berries, conducts foodservice promotions and runs ads in consumer magazines, especially nutrition- and health-oriented publications.
Growers also can take advantage of blueberries' enviable health message. They're the leading source of antioxidants among fruits and vegetables, and the council helps spread that message through year-round trade and consumer advertising and public relations campaigns.