There is hope on the way for North Carolina growers hoping to move into commercial operation. North Carolina State University recently received funding for a blueberry genome project that Cline says could dramatically change the way blueberries are grown throughout the Southeast.

“Essentially Florida and Georgia have developed, via an aggressive breeding program, varieties that fit into the soil types and growing conditions in those states. They still have to provide mulch and irrigation, but some of these varieties perform really well in states to our south, Cline says.

The blueberry genome mapping project is headed by Allan Brown, a researcher with North Carolina State’s Plants for Human Health Institute at the Research Campus in Kannapolis, N.C. The work is a major step toward understanding the genetics of the blueberry, specifically which genes are responsible for making the health-protective natural components in the fruits.

It is expected to yield new discoveries in both medical and agricultural research.

For example, Cline says, “If Brown’s work identifies blueberry genes for traits like soil adaptability and can mark and track those genes, then plant breeders could use that knowledge to develop blueberry varieties that are highly adaptable and highly productive in soils other than the salt and pepper soils found here in southeast North Carolina.”

Overcoming that hurdle would be significant, but the North Carolina blueberry expert says there are plenty of other problems to be solved before commercial production can shift to other areas, or even expand in southeast North Carolina.

Labor is a huge concern for our growers, he notes. Ongoing research at N.C. State’s Castle Hayne Research Station has looked at mechanical methods for harvesting blueberries, but the challenges are significant, he says. Most blueberry harvesting for the fresh market is still done with hand labor.

In commercial blueberry operations, it typically costs a grower $5-$6 per flat — just to get their crop picked. Processing, packaging, shipping and other costs, all primarily done with hand labor, pushes the per acre cost higher than most new growers want to face, he says.

Cline, who is a plant pathologist by training, says blueberries also suffer from a number of diseases.

For more than 30 years he has been successful in helping develop varieties with natural resistance to stem canker and stem blight. It is a never ending challenge, he says, to help growers stay ahead of these and other diseases that can damage both blueberry yield and quality.

“Blueberries are woody perennial plants and they have perennial diseases that once you have them, you have them as long as you have blueberries. The key is to start with clean, disease resistant varieties and keep them clean throughout their production life,” he says.

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