Things have gone well for the blueberry since the turn of the century. The health benefits of the fruit have captured the attention of the public. Blueberries lead all fruits and vegetables in antioxidant activity, and they also contain vitamins A and C, zinc, potassium, iron, calcium and magnesium and are high in fiber and low in calories.
“We have had a good boost in demand over the past five years thanks to announcements about the healthiness of our product,” says blueberry grower Ralph Carter of White Lake, N.C. “Some new growers have been attracted into blueberries.”
But Carter hopes that trend doesn’t develop into a headlong rush.
“We have plenty of growers now,” he says. “We could stand a few more, but the demand is pretty much being met at this point.”
He advises anyone thinking of getting into the crop to seriously consider the demands of production.
“If you want to grow blueberries, you have to remember that highly acid soil gives the best results, and it does well on sand,” he says. “That is why blueberries do well here in southeastern North Carolina. It is sandy soil with a hardpan to hold moisture. It won’t grow much else.”
Blueberries have done well in other areas, but site selection is crucial.
In Kentucky, Extension Horticulturist Terry Jones says the site must have good drainage, plenty of organic matter and an extremely acid soil, with a pH level between 4.5 and 5.5.
“Rich tobacco ground, or a wonderful soybean field that is flat and is in a low-lying area, would not necessarily be where you’d want to plant your blueberries,” Jones says.
Establishing blueberries can be tricky, says Jones, and it may take three or four years before you have a marketable crop.
“The biggest problem we have with new growers is getting them to adequately prepare the site prior to planting,” says Jones. “As a result, some fail because the blueberry plants grow poorly and eventually die.”
Blueberries continue to have appeal for non-traditional growers because of the growing demand.
“This is a highly-perishable product that commands an excellent price when it’s presented as a fresh, high-quality product in the retail market,” says Tim Woods, Kentucky Extension marketing specialist.
Another strong point is that the scale doesn’t have to be large.
“A lot of our growers find they can do very well with two or three acres,” says Woods. “Even with as little as 30 or 40 bushes, a farmer would have enough product to sell at the local farmers market.”
But whatever the scale, blueberry harvest is a real challenge. About 60 percent of Carter’s crop is sold to the fresh market, and that means it has to be picked by hand.
To do that on his 450 acres of blueberries, Carter needs 400 to 800 workers per day over the three-week harvest period.
“Lining up enough temporary workers to get the harvest done is a job,” he says.
The rest of his crop goes into processed products like jams, jellies, ciders and juices. A local farmers’ cooperative does the processing and marketing for him.
This year, Carter’s crop turned out better than he anticipated, considering the intense heat of early June. Oddly though, it wasn’t heat but a cold wet spell that caused the biggest problem on his blueberries.
“When one of our varieties, Croatan, was blooming, the weather was rainy and cool, and bees didn’t do their work. That interfered with pollination, and we had about a 60-percent loss on that variety.”
He hasn’t lost confidence in the variety. “Croatan is an old variety, but it is still very solid,” says Carter. “It was just bad luck. The timing worked against it. The rest of my crop did well.”
There was a lesson to be learned about pollination this year but it had more to do with the bees than the blueberries.
“We have to face up to the fact our native bees are just not doing the job they used to do,” he says. “We will have to increase the number of rented bees we use.”
Growers frequently hire beekeepers to bring in honeybee hives to improve the cross-pollination they would get if they just relied on wild bees.
“I have been renting bees since I first got into blueberries,” says Carter. “We have even kept a few bees of our own at times but stopped because they interfered too much with our other activities.
“Back when I started, we needed only half a hive of rented bees per acre of blueberries. But we have had to increase the number. This season we set out two hives per acre, and next season we will put out two and a half to three hives per acre.”
He has tried one other tactic to improve pollination. It is possible now to hire commercially-reared bumblebees, and in some conditions they are reported to be very efficient pollinators.
Carter has experimented with bumblebees on a small scale for three seasons, and the jury is still out. “We have not seen a lot of results yet,” he says.