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• In many areas of the Southeast ‘salt and pepper’ land is considered poor land, but for commercial blueberry growers, salt and pepper soils are ideal for growing their crop.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE University Blueberry Specialist Bill Cline checks progress of commercial blueberries near Castle Hayne, N.C.
North Carolina blueberries essentially have two crops. High bush and Southern high bush varieties typically hit the market from mid-May and remain available for shipping through mid-June or so. Then rabbiteye blueberry varieties mature in mid-June and are available until early August in most years.
Unlike locally grown and sold fruit, these commercially shipped berries have to compete on a national market. Having a long marketing period is good on the one hand.
However, North Carolina blueberries are not the first of the year, or the last, so starting and ending prices are affected by earlier and later production in other states.
To the south, Florida and Georgia are major players in the blueberry market. Florida in particular has spent a lot of time and research money to develop varieties that perform well and mature early throughout much of the state.
Georgia typically ranks in the top three or four among blueberry producing states.
Florida berries begin hitting the market in April, followed by Georgia berries in early May. As is the case with most crops, earlier is better from a marketing standpoint.
To the north New Jersey is one of the top blueberry producing states and their crop comes into production only a couple of weeks later than much of the North Carolina crop.
“The growers who are in commercial production of blueberries in North Carolina generally do well, despite the marketing handicap. Consider Florida and California growers, who get $3 or higher per pound for their blueberries. By the time Georgia and North Carolina berries are mature, the price is down to $2 or less per pound,” Cline says.
To get into production on upland soils outside the relatively small area of ideal salt and pepper land in southeast North Carolina, would cost about $20,000 per acre.
Included in the cost is clearing land, adding mulch to get organic matter high enough, irrigation to supply the large amounts of water required to grow blueberries, and the cost of getting a crop planted and into production.
Putting blueberries into production on ground they don’t thrive in is almost certain to drive yields down. While good blueberry land in southeast North Carolina may produce up to 16,000-18,000 pounds per acre, in most areas of the Southeast about half that yield is commonplace.
The demand for blueberries is high, pushed by the many healthy attributes of the crop. And, demand for local markets is good. So blueberry production is spreading across the Upper Southeast on upland soils, but it is primarily small acreage, local market oriented, Cline says.