In just a little more than a decade, Georgia’s blueberry industry has grown into a global player, and it’s not slowing down.

Acreage and production should increase in the immediate future as Georgia growers look to capitalize on a specific market window they’ve staked out for themselves with high-quality berries.

Georgia growers started dabbling in blueberries three decades ago, but not until the late 1990s did the industry really take root and start to grow. Tobacco acreage was declining then in the state and the old tobacco quota system was on its way out. Growers wanted to diversify and blueberry was looking like the best bet, especially around the old tobacco growing belt in southeast part of the state. It’s figured the industry has grown by 15 percent to 20 percent annually over the last decade.

That growth is targeted on a fresh-market window starting mid-April and stretching to late-June or early-July, a timeframe once marked as a lull in U.S. blueberry production, and a window Georgia growers now fill, said Joe Cornelius, chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission.

“We kind of found we fit that window eight to 10 years ago where the graph on the wall showed North America’s production period was lower then,” Cornelius said.

Georgia’s acreage numbers aren’t solid. USDA has it at 15,000 acres or a bit better. But the likely number is 20,000 acres or more now. Cornelius expects it to reach more than 25,000 acres in a few years.

Yields remain somewhat consistent, between 3,500 pounds and 4,000 pounds per acre, though Cornelius says on his 180 acres of blueberries he shoots for 10,000 pounds per acre.

And here’s the thing, with the acreage expansion and as newer bushes reach maturity, he said, Georgia’s annual production could reach more than 100 million pounds in the next few years. The crop is good this year and will likely hit 70 million pounds.

“We got the acres in the dirt right now. We had spring in late December this year, and that cost us 15 million to 20 million pounds of blueberries. We could do 100 million to 110 million, but all the stars would have to line up just right. But I think five years from now we’ll be in that 100-million-pounds-per-year range pretty consistently,” he said.

Blueberries already are the highest value fruit in Georgia, worth about $250 million annually, surpassing the state’s famous peaches in value.

The United States is the world’s largest producer of blueberries, harvesting 564.4 million pounds of cultivated and wild blueberries in 2012. More than 80 percent of total production is from cultivated blueberries, according to a January 2013 report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Michigan growers harvested 87 million pounds in 2012, the top cultivated producers in the country. Maine, though, gathers the most low-bush, or wild blueberries, in the country with 91 million pounds in 2012. Nationwide, blueberries were worth $851 million in 2012, the second most economically important berry crop in the United States.

Challenges to growth

The global marketplace will also help determine the future of Georgia blueberries. While the state’s harvesting season typically lasts from mid-April through the end of July, competing states such as Michigan, New Jersey, Florida and countries such as Chile have crept into the growing window.

Though a lot has been learned on what to do and not to do when it comes to commercial blueberry production in Georgia, Cornelius said, he compares the industry now to what Georgia’s vegetable industry was during its infancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Vegetable growers were starting to roll bigger and management and production challenges were being figured out.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about blueberries and what to do,” he said. “And with new acreage coming into full production in the next few years and maybe even more (acreage), every farm is different and we’re planting on more diverse soil types. We’re going to have to concentrate on cheaper production without sacrificing quality.”

Erick Smith took the reins as the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension blueberry specialist back in April, a position that has been unfilled for five years in the state. Before coming to Georgia, he was a research associate at Washington State University.

He’s been out getting to know the industry and its growers. “Right now, as I understand it from my conversations with people in the blueberry industry, many farmers worry about market saturation, which can lower returns to the farm,” Smith said.

“This allows for many opportunities to develop a program focused on plant health, production efficiencies and fruit quality. I see, going forward, very exciting challenges.”