If you've got ‘em, it can be a good business. “If you blink, you'll miss it,” says Chester Barnhill, a North Carolina blueberry producer.
For the last several years, growers in North Carolina, and elsewhere, haven't done a lot of blinking. In fact, they've benefited from good growing seasons and the healthful benefits of blueberries to expand acreage.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services ran ads touting blueberries on the North Carolina Farm Fresh series, says Laurie Wood, blueberry marketing specialist with the department.
Nationally, blueberry growers harvested about 400 million pounds of the fruit last year. In North Carolina, the acreage is around 6,000 acres each year; Bladen County is the largest producer. Last year, the North Carolina blueberry crop brought in almost $38 million.
Many North Carolina growers market their berries through the Carolina Blueberry Association, while others market their crop to supermarkets in the United States.
“My granddaddy and daddy planted the bushes” is how the first response to a question usually goes when asking about blueberry production. The industry began in the late 1920s in North Carolina, after a New Jersey grower came to the area. By 1940, local growers were in full production. The Association was formed in 1941.
That's how it began for Barnhill and other producers, even though the state-of-the-art, high-tech packing shed shows how far the industry has come. Color sorters pick the green berries from the ripe ones. The blueberries are packed in plastic containers, cooled and shipped. Despite the high-tech machinery, it still comes down to marketing. He uses a marketer and ships to supermarkets. For blueberries, stores traditionally do an advertising blitz the first week of June, so it's hard work to time the harvest of the crop. “They want to know how much you're going to have, so you have to guesstimate,” Barnhill says, whose packing shed can pack as many as 24,000 flats a day. A flat contains 12, one-pint containers of blueberries. “We work real hard to market and try to hit it right with the stores,” he says. “If you hit it right, you can make a lot of money.”
Producers in Florida missed the early June season because of weather.
“It's a hands-on thing,” Barnhill says. “This business is not for everybody.”
Hinson Barnes, a retired lawyer and state Senate leader, however, found that it was the perfect fit.
“I decided after 35 years I would retire and I sat on the porch for two days,” Barnes says. Raised on a farm in White Lake, he decided to return to his roots and try his hand at growing blueberries.
“Production has caught up with our buildings,” Barnes said, as he talked to participants in a tour of his facilities earlier this summer.
“Last year was a bumper crop and this year is a good crop,” Barnes says. “The heat made it an earlier-than-usual season.”
Barnes says things are looking good for the blueberry industry because of reports about the health benefits of blueberries. “In the last five or six years, publications have been running stories telling about the health benefits of blueberries.”
Dean Johnson uses machines that beat the berries off the vines and “some that dance with the bushes.” Blueberries are a tradition with his family. They've expanded acreage in recent years. Harvest occurs every 10 to 12 days. The hand-picked varieties are harvested every five days.
To pollinate the crop, Johnson uses a hive of bees per acre of bushes. “We also use some bumblebees,” he says. “They'll work in all kinds of weather.”
More than half of the blueberries grown in North Carolina are sold to the fresh market.