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Georgia Blueberry Business Growing Up

While the economy lags and many businesses are forced to make drastic cutbacks, Georgia's blueberry farming is booming.

"What was an infant industry in the '90s has now grown to an adolescent industry," said Scott NeSmith, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

NeSmith recently completed a survey of Georgia blueberry farms. The survey, led by UGA plant pathologist Harald Scherm, focused on growers' pest management and horticultural practices.

Management Practices and More

"We set out to find out what pest problems the industry may be facing," NeSmith said. "But the survey revealed much more."

It showed that Georgia blueberries are still grown mainly in the southeastern and south-central parts of the state. Farms in Appling, Bacon, Clinch, Pierce and Ware counties account for more than 90 percent of the total acreage.

Georgia has 4,500 acres of agricultural land devoted to rabbiteye and southern highbush blueberries. The average grower now has been in the business 14.3 years.

"The survey suggests the industry is healthy and expanding, and the area planted is expected to increase by 35 percent over the next five years," he said. "Our 4,500 acres should be well over 6,000 acres by then. That's not a fly-by-night or stagnate industry."

Southern highbush blueberries are becoming more popular among growers.

"When we last surveyed the industry 12 years ago, a highbush industry didn't exist," NeSmith said. "Now, 8 to 10 percent of the crop is planted in southern highbush."

Pest Problems on the Rise

Unfortunately, the survey did reveal emerging pest problems.

"Blueberries used to be billed as a 'plant it and leave it alone' crop," NeSmith said. "You didn't need to spray or manage it, and that was because they're a native plant."

Growers can continue to manage their blueberries that way if they're happy with low yields and mediocre quality, NeSmith said.

"But if you really want to step up and get high yields and high-quality fruit, which is what the market is demanding, it requires a whole new level of management," he said.

"These emerging pest problems are going to require our growers to apply pesticides," he said. "Our job is to provide them the best management practices they can follow."

The survey showed more than 80 percent of the growers are now using fungicides to control diseases.

Growers Fight Fire Ants, Mummy Berry and Cold

Mummy berry was ranked as the top disease problem. Left untreated, the disease can cause fruit to be wrinkled and pink and, eventually, mummified.

Growers said fire ants are a nuisance pest. They call midge and flower thrips, which both feed on flower buds, their most significant yield-reducing pests.

Blueberry growers' most common horticultural problems were identified as poor fruit set, drought and freezes. All of the growers surveyed ranked "freeze damage during bloom" as either a major or moderate problem.

"With the survey completed," NeSmith said, "we now know what areas we need to focus our research on."

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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