U.S.: Florida ready for light blueberry season
Once again adverse weather conditions likely triggered by El Niño are affecting crop production, this time in Florida where blueberry growers are gearing up for a light season due to an abnormally warm winter.
In conversation with www.freshfruitportal.com, Florida Blueberry Growers Association president Dudley Calfee discussed the impact so far on the state's early season blueberry crops, and how the state expects to improve crop forecasts in the future.
"The unusually warm start to the winter season denied us any of the normal chill that we get which helps blueberries produce bloom and fruit. In some areas we got very little [chill], and in a lot of areas we got none," he said.
Calfee defined chill as the time the berry spent below 50°F and above 32°F. This was tracked automatically by Florida weather network stations, he added.
"Usually we like to see 50 to 150 hours of chill before Christmas, and like I said, this year some areas got none, some areas got five hours, and maybe as much as 20 in some of the northern parts of the state. But it was an unusually warm beginning of the winter.
"Most of our plants in Florida require some chill for optimal fruit set. And also, we use a product called hydrogen cyanamide, its trade name is Dormex, and we usually apply that some time early to mid-December, or maybe January at the most, and we like to apply that when we have adequate chill, so it was a real guessing game on when to apply that product.
"That product defoliates the plant and helps it re-flush at the same time, and by doing that it compresses our harvest time a little bit. So we're not picking over a three-month period, we're picking over optimally a six-week period," he said.
Calfee predicted this season was going to produce a light harvest and a long pick.
"The light harvest may be because there are fewer berries on the bush to pick, but it also may be because they become ripe so late that they've ripened past our window," he said.
"As Georgia comes in and the harvest moves on up to the north, Florida's unique market window is pretty small. We actually have four weeks, maybe six weeks of an optimal market window when we're first in the nation with berries and see very good prices.
"At the end of that season when Georgia comes in with it's probably 25,000 acres now, compared to our 8,000, the supply of berries goes up, the price goes down and it becomes less optimal for us to harvest our berries."
Calfee said it was very difficult to make accurate forecasts on crop performance seeing that the state currently does not have a forecast system in place.
"We don't have a crop forecast system in Florida, although I'm working closely with the Department of Agriculture at the University of Florida to try to develop a crop forecast system over the next two years, the idea being that if we knew what we were going to get, it would be easier for the marketer to either demand higher prices in a tight market, or pre-sell some of the fruit if we know there's going to be an abundance of fruit," he said.
"We have to get an idea of exactly how many acres, varieties, density, age of plantings, and then we have to get information from the growers about the bloom stage, we have to get information from the breeders about the number of heat units it takes for each variety to reach maturity, so there's a lot of data to be crunched.
"We look forward to working with the University of Florida and the Department of Ag and some of the climatologists at some of the other universities to get a semi-automated system in place for weather reporting."
But without this system in place, Calfee said it was really difficult to forecast when the blueberries would be out on the market with any kind of certainty.
"A cold snap a week away from harvest can set the berries back a week. I've seen berries on my own plants that look like we're going to harvest one day after tomorrow, and we get a cold snap, and you know they were purple and just starting to turn blue, and they'll turn back to a sort of bronze color.
"And we know they have to go back to purple and then blue, and it starts all over again, so just depending on what kind of curve ball Mother Nature decides to throw at us.
"All of this is one reason I believe that getting a crop forecast system in place for the blueberry growers in the state is probably one of the most important things I can do as president of the association in the next couple of years," he said.
Calfee said there were already some farms picking small amounts of blueberries, but until the State obtained a crop forecast system and got a few years of experience with this equipment, it was going to be very difficult to answer questions about crop forecasts.
Additionally, Calfee said that without a crop forecast system in place, growers were unaware if certain varieties performed better than others with fewer chill hours.
In Florida you would find around 15 to 20 different varieties being produced, according to Calfee.
"Almost everyone is growing Jewel and Emerald, but there is such a variety. I go to some farms and they've probably got eight or nine different varieties planted on their farm. Then I go to others and they only have two," he said.
He said some growers had a few acres of a new variety to try out, then had older varieties mixed in.
"Breeders at the University of Florida [UF] are constantly breeding and testing new varieties. They developed the Southern highbush varieties for our unique climate.
"They are low varieties in that if you look at some of the varieties up north, they require 300 hours of chill, where ours can get by with as little as 50. So the breeders at UF have done a good job of bringing in plants that will actually grow in our subtropical environment. And they're continuing to release new varieties almost every year.
Calfee added that Florida varieties were large and sweet.
"Until we started growing the Southern Highbush, the Rabbiteye blueberry was the dominant variety in the States. This is a northern plant and the berries are hardly the size of your pinky thumbnail. And they're mostly harvest by machine.
"Whereas Florida blueberries range from really, really sweet to really sweet with kind of a tart flavor. We've recently released some varieties that have a crispness that consumers seem to like, although all the berries are fresh and crisp, so we're staying intuitive to consumer demands.
And the health benefits of blueberries are endless.
"Blueberries are universally loved among consumers, from little kids to geriatrics, there's something in the little blue dynamos that's good for everybody.
"I was recently speaking to a physician, and he told me they recently discovered that the antioxidants in blueberries can be used to improve the performance of sunscreen.
"So we're continuing to find new uses for our blueberries. They're great for you. If you're a geriatric they'll help your brain development, if you're a diabetic they'll help control your blood sugar, of course antioxidants are great for kids' development, and athletes and everyone else," he said.
Calfee added that eating a handful of blueberries a day was certainly great for optimal health.
Florida's blueberries are commercialized for the local market as well as a few markets abroad.
"We used to export a lot more to Europe than we do. Europe has its own blueberry farms now and they're filling some of their own needs. I know there's still some export to Europe.
Calfee said Canada had always been a good export market for Florida produce, and that they still did export some blueberries to Canada.
"We recently had a trade mission to South America a couple of years ago and discovered that in some countries in South America, Colombia for example, blueberries are still a luxury good and command very attractive prices. So I think some marketers are looking to expand there," he said.
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