By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia
A late spring freeze followed by heavy rains were a blessing for some Georgia blueberry growers. But they brought more hard work to others, according to University of Georgia experts.
The heavy rains delayed harvest of the southeast Georgia crop, causing some early concerns about highbush berry quality. “We had to work harder to make grade due to the heavy rains this spring, but it’s turning out to be good year for rabbiteye growers,” said UGA Cooperative Extension blueberry agent Danny Stanaland.
“We grow two blueberry crops in Georgia – highbush and rabbiteye,” Stanaland went on to explain. The highbush crop in some areas of southeast Georgia, which is the state’s major commercial production area, “was hit hard by the late freeze and will produce only about 35 to 50 percent of the crop.”
Robust rabbiteye crop
Fortunately, blueberry fans all over Georgia can expect a bumper crop from the rabbiteye variety.
“It will be the largest crop of rabbiteye blueberries we’ve had in several years,” Stanaland said.
That’s especially good news for Georgia’s 300 blueberry growers. The majority of the crop is rabbiteye variety, and about 10 percent of the total crop is highbush variety.
“The highbush variety blooms and fruits early, making it more susceptible to the low temperatures and rain,” Stanaland said. “But, May 20 we finished harvesting highbush. That crop is gone.”
Growers are now harvesting rabbiteye berries in three phases.
“The early rabbiteye berries were wet and had some grading issues because it required more selective picking to get the good berries,” he said. “Now that it’s dry again, it’s much easier to harvest and grade, and fruit quality is very positive. We have the heaviest rabbiteye fruit set we’ve had in years. So, while we were short on highbush berries, we are going to be long on rabbiteye.”
In the northern half of the state, where most blueberry operations are pick-your-own, growers are reporting larger-than-normal berries and an abundant crop, just in time for many markets to open this weekend.
In 2008, Georgia blueberry growers harvested more than 14,000 acres of blueberries with an off-the-farm value of close to $61 million dollars, slightly above the five-year average.
This year, growers expect to harvest between 12,000 and 14,000 acres, but that figure could surge as high as 15,000 to 20,000 acres, according to Stanaland and county Extension agent reports. About 75 percent of those acres are in southeast Georgia.
Prices are holding steady in spite of the abundance of available fruit this year, which usually drives prices down. Growers are getting about $14 per flat — or $1.40 per pound — for fresh berries, only a shade lower than last year’s price.
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)