North Carolina is consistently among the top five or six blueberry producing states in the country, though commercial production is limited to eight or nine counties in the southeast section of the state.

Commercial blueberry production started in North Carolina in the 1920s and has been something akin to a forerunner of Vidalia onions and other commercial crops, relegated because of soil-plant interactions to a specific area of a state.

Blueberry growers in New Jersey came to the Carolinas in the 1920s looking for land that met their needs for growing the crop. Long-time Blueberry Specialist and North Carolina State University researcher Bill Cline says they found plenty of “bad” land in southeastern North Carolina.

“When I say bad land, I mean land that would be good for blueberries, but bad for most other crops,” Cline says. Blueberries grow best in porous, well-drained acid soils with a pH below 5, with abundant organic matter, and water near the surface.

In most areas of commercial blueberry production in North Carolina water is typically only 12 to 30 inches below the soil surface, he says.  Soils are coarse, unstained white sand mixed with black organic matter, giving a ‘salt and pepper’ appearance.

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.

Most farmers like to see the rich reds and browns in their soil, but the black and white color of salt and pepper soils centered around Bladen County, N.C., have proven ideal for commercial blueberry production, Cline says.

The North Carolina State researcher and Extension specialist, whose work is closely supported by the North Carolina Blueberry Council, has devoted much of his 30-year professional career to improving blueberry production in the state. He says the moniker ‘Blueberry Guru’ may be a little much, but clearly he is a ‘go-to’ guy when it comes to both commercial and small market production of the crop.

Interest has skyrocketed

Nationwide, interest in blueberries has skyrocketed in recent years because of their many well documented healthy attributes. For more than half a century blueberries have been tied to common remedies for a plethora of digestive tract problems.

Today, they are being touted among other things to:

• Lower blood pressure;

• Reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes;

• Help prevent urinary tract infections;

• Reduce inflammation;

• Reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress.

Michigan is the top producer, but 40 percent of the 2012 blueberry crop in the U.S. (totaling 461.8 million pounds) was grown in the western states of California, Washington and Oregon.

The Southeast, predominantly Florida, Georgia and North Carolina produces about one-fourth of the total U.S. blueberry production in any given year.

The growth in domestic production is dwarfed by increases in production in South America, especially Chile, which produces most of the off-season (winter) blueberries consumed in the U.S. between November and April.

“Blueberries are grown in every county in North Carolina and probably in most counties in neighboring states as well, but commercial production, meaning growers who compete on a national market, and who ship blueberries in large quantities all over the world, is centered in this eight or nine county area in southeastern North Carolina, Cline says.

“I get the question all the time, ‘why can’t we grow blueberries in other areas of North Carolina?. The answer is simple on the one hand — you can — and many farmers do grow the crop on a part-time basis for local, fresh market sales.

“On the other hand to grow the crop commercially as a full-time job, the answer is more complex, but basically comes down to cost of production versus value of the crop,” he adds.

Two crops

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.

Incentives for new producers

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.

rroberson@farmpress.com

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