By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
Recent rains across Georgia have the state's blueberry growers holding their breath as to whether they'll make a profit this year.
"Wet weather like this keeps us from picking fresh berries," said Joe Cornelius, president of the Georgia Blueberry Growers Association. "We can pick (berries for processing) when it's wet, but not berries for the fresh market, and the fresh bring a higher price."
When it comes to blueberries, it's not the volume of rain that growers fear.
It's not the volume that hurts
"What hurts is the duration that the berry skins are wet," Cornelius said. "If they stay wet 24 hours, you'll have problems, 36 hours you have serious problems, and 48 hours you're in big trouble."
The wetness causes the berries to split open, making them useless to growers and consumers.
"The berries that split are eaten up or blown out or torn up by our picking equipment," he said. "So you don't get any dollar value out of them."
On his 184-acre Manor, Ga., farm, Cornelius has already lost profits because of the rain.
"It's costing us now in fresh and frozen berries," he said. "Another three or four days of this and we are going to lose out completely."
About 60 percent of Georgia's blueberries are sold to the frozen market and 40 percent for the fresh market. Most Georgia berries are exported across North America and into parts of Europe, Cornelius said.
State grows two types of berries
Around 90 percent of Georgia's blueberries are rabbiteye varieties that are harvested from late May to July or early August. The rest are southern highbush.
"You can't tell by looking at the berries which type they are," Cornelius said. "But there are differences in flavor. The rabbiteyes have a little tougher skin and a little more texture. The key is to keep either type on the bush as long as possible to produce a better-tasting berry."
Before the rains hit, Georgia growers were enjoying the best early crop they've ever had. Production was higher than normal in southern highbush blueberries this season, but the dollar value was down, Cornelius said. The rabbiteye production was promising before the rains came.
"The latest crop reports show the 2003 farm gate value of Georgia blueberries was $26.7 million," said Scott NeSmith, a University of Georgia horticulturist. "In 1990, there were just 3,200 acres of blueberries in Georgia, and now there are just shy of 8,000."
New varieties bred to help growers
NeSmith works closely with Georgia growers as the state's blueberry breeder. He tests potential new varieties on Georgia farms across the state. Those tests' results have yielded better varieties for Georgia growers.
"We've increased Georgia's blueberry season significantly over the past six to eight years with new southern highbush varieties," he said. "What makes our breeding program so successful is grower input."
Growers tell NeSmith what qualities they need in new varieties, and he works to breed them into a new release. In the past two years NeSmith released two new rabbiteye varieties and just released a new southern highbush variety.
"The new highbush, Palmetto, has good flavor and quality and produces medium-sized berries," NeSmith said. "Farmers will also like the fact that it can be harvested in late April to the first of May, which gets their berries into the fresh market even earlier."
Cornelius says he and other growers try to be realistic in their requests for new varieties.
"Each variety has good and bad traits, and Scott works to increase the good and decrease the bad," he said. "That's what we need."
He chuckles at the input a grower once gave a Florida breeder.
"A friend of mine told a plant breeder once, what we need is a berry you can throw up in the air 10 feet, let it bounce to the concrete, roll 20 feet, and then put in a cup and sell," Cornelius said.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)