Dave Brazelton has been in the blueberry business for 30 years, looking at varieties all over the world for just the right characteristics to grow in California. He’s finally found it.
Brazelton, the president of the nation’s largest blueberry nursery, Fall Creek Farm & Nursery in Lowell, OR, actually discovered the low-chill variety a decade ago. He was walking trial blocks in Florida in April 2000 with Paul Lyrene, the University of Florida’s blueberry breeder, when he spotted a low-chill variety that was suffering from stem blight, a common disease in the Sunshine State.
Brazelton liked the blueberry’s characteristics, and he wasn’t too concerned about the fact that it had stem blight, which in Florida knocks out about 60% of commercial varieties. “Stem blight is very much climate-characteristic,” he says. “In drier climates, it’s no problem at all.”
The San Joaquin
After all, Brazelton, who currently serves as chairman of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council’s Research Committee, was after a variety that thrived in just that, the dry desert-like climate of the world’s richest agricultural region, California’s San Joaquin Valley. Therefore it only seemed appropriate when this year, after years of trials, the new blueberry variety is released with the fitting moniker, “San Joaquin.” Brazelton is now taking orders, with commercial planting expected this fall.
The nurseryman is, to say the least, very excited about his new baby, or as he terms it, “like choosing a marriage partner.” He liked the fruit right away, but he had to make sure it withstood some trials. “We’ve trialed a lot of selections in California that have not made it commercially; the California blueberry industry has been developed on varieties outside the state,” he says. “This is the first variety released specifically for the desert climate of California.”
Growers in other parts of the country interested in planting blueberries should take note, however. Though San Joaquin will not work in humid climates such as Florida because of stem blight, Brazelton is interested in how the variety will work in other warm, dry climates, such as in Texas and other southern states.
Besides being a true California variety, San Joaquin has one other characteristic that makes it unique, says Brazelton. It is the first southern highbush variety that can be mechanically harvested and packed for the fresh market. It can be mechanically harvested because the fruit is firm and retains a bright blue color, its loose clusters make for an easy release, and its upright, open-bush habit, and vigorous growth are ideal. The ability to mechanically harvest obviously saves the grower money on labor, Brazelton notes. “Not to mention the availability of labor — that’s another story,” he says.
San Joaquin requires about 400 to 500 hours of chilling, which is similar to a variety that may be familiar to growers, Star. It also yields about the same as Star, with harvest about a week later. San Joaquin is not self-fertile, and should be planted with a pollinator such as Abundance, which Brazelton recommends because it shows promise as a variety that might too lend itself to machine-harvesting.
Brazelton, who has served the industry in numerous posts, including a stint as president of the Oregon Blueberry Growers Association, is also excited about one other aspect of San Joaquin that fruit breeders have been accused of overlooking in recent decades — flavor. “It tastes like a blueberry, but it has undertones of a tropical fruit,” he says. “A few people have said that it tastes like guava.”
As far as drawbacks, Brazelton said his only concern is that because the San Joaquin is so vigorous and it tends to grow upright, growers will have to manage the height of the canopy as the bushes get older, which isn’t the case for most varieties. “But I’ll take one that needs pruning over a weak grower any day,” he says.