Flocks of birds terrorize Florida blueberry crop

05/02/2012 03:08:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern EditorLike a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, The Birds, birds are threatening this season’s Florida blueberries.

In the 1963 movie, thousands of birds seemingly for no reason begin attacking people in a small town along the northern California coast.

In Florida this year, errant cedar waxwings, which like eating berries, are attacking fields of blueberries.

Growers are firing propane-powered cannons to startle the birds from becoming comfortable in the fields so they won’t devour their crops.

Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association and Auburndale, Fla.-based Polkdale Farms, says the pests aren’t a new problem.

Mockingbirds and blue jays also eat blueberries. Those birds, however, don’t attack fields in flocks of thousands, Braswell said.

Cedar waxwings strike fields but growers usually find them gone by the next day.

This year, however, the migratory birds timed their arrival to the fruit’s ripening and have remained throughout the season.

“It’s like a vortex of birds drop down in the fields, just hammering these guys (growers). This is the most severe we’ve seen them,” Braswell said.

“These birds are so much more aggressive. They just won’t leave. They’re hard to discourage. They just keep coming.”

Because trees don’t line his 400 acres, which he markets through Bartow, Fla.-based Clear Springs Packing LLC, Braswell says the birds aren’t a problem for him as they are for other growers’ acreage surrounded by oak trees where the birds perch between feedings.

Homeowners began complaining to state lawmakers in Tallahassee about noise from growers’ efforts to scare off the birds and growers soon feared regulations.

However, growers explained the issue to their representatives and started firing the canons more responsibly, like not close to homes, Braswell said.

Braswell isn’t sure how many berries the birds have eaten, but says some fields could see losses up to a third.

The birds are another headache in what Braswell calls a horrible blueberry season.

Frostbite

The deal, which started two weeks earlier than normal in mid-March, is almost out of volume.

In late April, Braswell said growers throughout the state were only “scrapping” or harvesting light volumes of the remaining fruit.

Though the crop was stunted by the Feb. 11-12 freezing temperatures, Braswell said it didn’t receive enough chill hours.

The warmer than normal winter accelerated maturities.

Instead of harvesting close to the record 22 million pounds they picked last year, growers as of late April had harvested 12 million pounds.

Braswell said growers tell him most of the crop is done and said he thinks growers will be lucky to harvest around 16 million pounds.

Production south of Interstate 4 finished April 27, and north Florida, which normally ends by mid-May, may finish in early May.

While growers usually keep picking until Georgia’s larger volume knocks prices down, Braswell said he’s not seeing such price pressure this year despite Georgia harvesting a million pounds a day.

He quoted $20-25 for flats of 12 6-ounce clamshells from Florida, similar to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported for south Georgia.

Typically, growers don’t harvest all their crop and it’s not unheard of them to leave about 20% on the bush.

But not this year when growers say they’ll likely try to pick every berry.

Other growers say the warmer winter blurred and unified the distinct north and south Florida deals.

North and south Florida harvests normally finish by May 20.

Hopefully, this season won’t be one for the birds.

dohlemeier@thepacker.com

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