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US (FL): Blueberry industry growing, but for how long?A lot more Florida growers are cultivating blueberries these days.The window of opportunity for locally produced berries is narrowing, as Chile now ships right up until the Florida season starts and Georgia is waiting at the other end. However, during that short window between the middle of March and early May, Florida has exclusive market penetration and can claim very high prices - as much as $5 per pound.
"When I started back in 1996, there were maybe 800 acres in Florida," remembers grower Bob Waldo. "Now there are something like 8,000 acres of blueberries. What was once a specialty crop is now a commodity."
Waldo originally kept his day job in the irrigation business, buying Hudson property in 1993 and planting just an acre of blueberries.
"It was a 'let's do this and see what happens' kind of deal."
According to Florida Blueberry Growers Association president Bill Braswell, the biggest change in Florida blueberries in recent years is not the number of farms (he says there still aren't enough blueberries to make a dent in the demand), but the size of the farms. When he and Waldo first started, the average farm was 3 to 5 acres; now it's closer to 50, with big players like Dole getting into the business in the past 18 months. This year's total Florida blueberry crop is likely to hit 20 million pounds.
"All of this growth has been very good to us," Braswell says. "We used to be a niche crop that may or may not be available. Now - Whole Foods, Publix, Dollar General Market - we're available and people expect to see Florida blueberries."
Still, Braswell isn't entirely bullish about blueberries. Since 2009, freak weather has impacted crops.
This year, not enough chill in January and February, followed by a March chill, caused plants to go back into dormancy, reflowering as things heated up again. This extended the season a bit, but caused farmers serious headaches. (Waldo and Lewis pulled 20 all-nighters in March, irrigating plants overhead to protect against potential freeze.)
And while prices for berries haven't dropped much, expenses have dramatically increased: The cost of fuel, labor and chemicals has skyrocketed.
"For the 3 to 5 acre farm, input costs have taken a lot of the profit," Braswell says.
Publication date: 5/28/2013
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