A Blueberry’s Tale

Dr. Paul Lyrene is as qualified as anybody to tell the story of Florida blueberries. He’s been working with the University of Florida as a blueberry breeder since 1977 when he came to Gainesville to begin the quest to develop blueberries suited for the state’s growing conditions. In those 32 years, he has seen blueberries grow from a fledgling niche to an increasingly attractive alternative to farmers.

During last year’s Florida Ag Expo, Lyrene stressed that plenty of market opportunity is left with blueberries despite Florida’s growing acreage in recent years. Over the years, growers have adapted to the often challenging conditions for blueberry production in Florida.

Slow Growth

The history of blueberry production dates back to the 1880s when growers planted rabbiteye bushes taken from the forest and cultivated them with mules. By 1930, there were about 2,000 acres of rabbiteye blueberries in Florida, mostly in the panhandle west of Tallahassee, but there were some in the Gainesville and Jacksonville areas.

“The berries from these wild bushes were mostly small and dark, and they ripened in July and August,” said Lyrene. “Florida rabbiteyes during that period were never really profitable.”

New and improved rabbiteye varieties were developed in 1950s to 1960s like the Tifblue and Woodard. By 1977, the state had several hundred acres of pick-your-own of these varieties, and the farms prospered rather well through the ’80s in northern Florida.

High On Highbush

“The Florida Blueberry Association, as I first knew it in 1977, was made up entirely of pick-your-own rabbiteye growers,” said Lyrene. “Ralph Sharpe began breeding southern highbush blueberries in 1950. His goal was to develop early-ripening varieties that could be grown throughout the state.”

Sharpe believed early-ripening varieties were essential if Florida was to be successful with a shipping berry, so he and Wayne Sherman released the first Florida highbush varieties in 1976 and 1977. They were Sharpblue, Flordablue, and Avonblue. Their varieties started ripening in Gainesville around May 1, which was about a month ahead of the rabbiteyes.

Several pioneering growers were drawing quite high prices for these blueberry varieties during the 1980s. But, it was also becoming clear that early blueberries were hard to grow in the state. Lyrene suggested that late freezes, crows, and cedar waxwings, high-pH irrigation water, and poor soils took a major toll on yields.

“Back then, plants were very expensive to buy,” he said. “A field-ready Sharpblue plant was $3, which would amount to $7 to $8 in today’s money.”

A Cold, Hard Lesson

As late as 1987, most blueberry states did not commonly use overhead irrigation for freeze protection. Early in April in 1985, North Carolina growers were hit hard by a freeze that killed 80% of the blueberry crop. But, one grower who had overhead irrigation had no damage whatsoever. Soon freeze protection was standard in both North Carolina and Florida.

Despite the protection, hard freezes have hurt growers like the “storm of the century” in March 1993. Temps fell to 24 degrees in Gainesville with a strong wind, which brought widespread damage in north and central Florida.

Man-Made Disaster

In the 1980s and 1990s, the self-incompatibility of the popular variety, Sharpblue, dealt a devastating blow to highbush growers. Sharpblue and Flordablue were released as a cross-pollinating pair. At first, growers planted the two varieties in alternating rows.

Sharpblue was easier to root and survived better than the Flordablue, so over time growers started planting Sharpblue in solid blocks, which greatly reduced yields.

“Later, careful study and field observations showed that solid-block Sharpblue yielded only 50% to 60% as much as the Sharpblue/Flordablue combination,” said Lyrene. “Together with all the other woes of growing highbush blueberries, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many highbush growers in Florida.

Faster Rabbits

In the ’80s, growers started planting with early rabbiteye varieties such as Aliceblue, Becklyblue, and Climax. But, during those years, prices were still low because North Carolina was pouring 3,000 acres of high-yielding Croatan on the market between May 20 and June 15.

Phil Emmer, owner of Florida Blueberries Incorporated, figured out how to take on Croatan’s weakness of only being able to be shipped as far as overnight due to freshness.

“Emmer went to Germany and sold his early rabbiteyes for excellent prices, long before other marketing groups exploited the early market window in Europe,” said Lyrene. “Unfortunately, consistently low yields made it impossible for Emmer to take advantage of those potential markets.”

Theories abound why early rabbiteyes yielded so low in Florida, but Lyrene believes it boils down to pests, disease, and poor soils, as so often is the case with crops in the state.

On The Brighter Side

In 1987, the USDA released the highbush variety, Gulf Coast, which was vigorous and produced a lot of flowers. It also had very low chilling requirements and was a perfect pollinator for Sharpblue south of I-4. It was the berry that kept many small blueberry growers afloat in central Florida between 1987 to 2000.

In 1994, Sunnyridge Farms planted a high-density orchard in Winter Haven, which consisted mostly of Misty and Sharpblue. At the same time, Sunnyridge and others were experimenting with high-density plantings on pine bark beds in what is called an evergreen system.

“Today, we view the evergreen system as a possible solution to the twin problems of lack of chilling and Dormex (hydrogen cyanamide, Evonik Industries) phototoxicity,” said Lyrene. “Both of these have been major issues in central Florida. Evergreening got a big boost from eastern Australia, where Gary Wright showed that you could ripen Sharpblue a month earlier than normal by using last year’s leaves to develop the current year’s crop.”

Lyrene predicts that annual tonnage of highbush blueberries shipped from Florida will continue to increase fairly fast, but prices for fresh blueberries in fixed-value dollars will likely fall.

“Our main defense, at least in the short run, will be selling high-quality berries, promoting the advantages of domestically-grown produce, and reducing our production costs.”

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