In the past 12 years, blueberry production has increased dramatically in Florida. According to USDA, Florida had 1,400 acres of blueberries producing 2,000 pounds per acre in 1999. By 2008, we were at 3,000 acres and 3,200 pounds per acre. As of this moment, I would estimate Florida has about 5,000 acres of blueberries producing more than 5,000 pounds per acre in the near future.
As acreage increased in Florida, it was minor compared to the acreage being planted around the planet. Production in the U.S. has doubled since 2000 from 240 million pounds to almost half a billion pounds in 2011. South America has jumped on the bandwagon and their acreage has gone from 5,000 acres in 2000 to 45,000 acres in 2011.
In the beginning and for many years, blueberries sold themselves. Just as Florida production began to matter, the healthful properties of blueberries were discovered. People began looking for fresh blueberries on their grocer’s shelves. Consumers recognized not just the health benefits of blueberries, but the great taste and ease of serving. Eating blueberries is simple, rinse them off and pop them in your mouth. Another quality of blueberries is children love them. We’re not selling spinach here. Their popularity spread and the demand continued to exceed supply. In 2012, you can find blueberries in the grocery store year round.
Mind Your Markets
As with anything in life, the good times don’t last forever. Chilean fruit has had a negative impact on pricing for Florida blueberries. There is no production gap between the Chilean season and Florida. Every year, more and more Chilean controlled atmosphere (CA) fruit arrives in the U.S. as late as May on consignment, driving prices even lower.
Earlier-producing University of Florida varieties planted in Georgia put the squeeze on Florida blueberries about the time Florida production hits its peak. With massive production on both ends of our season, the Florida window has all but disappeared. The last three seasons are evidence to this fact.
As Florida blueberry growers, we are beginning to see market saturation during most of our very short market window. This doesn’t mean the supply has necessarily outpaced demand, but with CA fruit, there is no urgency to purchase fresh fruit. Many produce buyers hedge the system with CA fruit. In other words if they can get fresh cheap they will take it. If they don’t like the price the older CA fruit fills the gap. This is the reality we now live with.
Speak Up, Reach Out
By recognizing our situation, we have begun taking steps to help ourselves. One of our problems is people demand blueberries, not necessarily Florida blueberries. We need to distinguish ourselves from the competition. The first item on our agenda was to get the word out that Florida produces blueberries. Every year, I meet many people who don’t even know Florida is a blueberry-growing state. These people certainly don’t know when our season is, so we need to tell them.
One way we are doing this is sponsoring the Florida Blueberry Festival in Brooksville. This year was our first festival. And by all accounts, it was a huge success. Roughly 50,000 people attended the three-day event. There they had the opportunity to purchase fresh blueberries as well as many of the value-added items comprised of blueberries. Jams, jellies, shortcakes, soap, cosmetics, and even blueberry wines were available. By advertising the festival, we were able to get the word out that Florida blueberries were in season and at their peak.
The festival received national recognition in Southern Living magazine. JetBlue Airlines came on board as a major sponsor. Already most of the vendor space for next year’s festival is sold out. Centrally located within the state, we anticipate the Florida Blueberry Festival to grow into a major statewide event over the next few years. Consumers are waking up to the value of fresh locally grown produce. The festival is an excellent marketing tool for Florida farmers to get the word out about fresh and delicious Florida blueberries.