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Blueberries overcome Katrina, late frosts

Mississippi’s blueberries have overcome weather obstacles and now are approaching harvest time with a good fruit load.

John Braswell, horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University’s Coastal Research and Extension Center in Poplarville, said Hurricane Katrina removed about 10 percent of the state’s plants from production, and a late frost caused additional 2006 yield reductions. However, the remaining bushes are sporting a good fruit load as they approach harvest time, which typically runs the last week of May through the second week of July.

“Mississippi may experience about a 40 percent reduction overall in this year’s blueberry crop,” Braswell said. “Right after Katrina, we repaired what we could and replaced the rest. New bushes will take several years before they go into production. The drought right after Katrina did not help matters.”

Braswell said Mississippi produced 5.7 million pounds of blueberries in 2005 at a value of almost $7.3 million. In addition to the reduced yields, growers also are facing higher production costs.

Leon Douglas of Lucedale said he invested in new bushes to replace plants uprooted by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005. Then his older, healthy bushes lost berries on March 25 when temperatures dropped to 26 degrees for three hours.

“The berries were at their most vulnerable stage -- about BB size. I probably lost half the crop in the low-lying fields near Lucedale,” Douglas said. “Our fields near Vancleave were unharmed.”

Before Hurricane Ivan, Douglas harvested about 190,000 pounds of blueberries. After Ivan damaged about 300 bushes, his total yield dropped to 120,000 pounds. Katrina uprooted about 500 bushes and another 600 had to be stood back up and pruned. He said he’s hoping to produce 100,000 pounds this year.

“We’ve replanted 1,200 plants this year, but they won’t produce for four years. Most of the plants we cut and repaired should resume production in a few years,” Douglas said. “I had let my bushes get too big, hoping for more berries on larger bushes. When hurricane winds came through, the root systems couldn’t support the plants.”

With 15 years in the blueberry business, Douglas said he is optimistic about the years to come. He said he hopes to have “mostly recovered” by next year and to exceed past yield totals when the recovering and new plants go into production in a few years.

“We’re expecting a strong market this year. In the past, prices have been about 95 cents to a dollar per pound. This year, we’re looking at $1.30 to $1.40 per pound,” Douglas said.

Linda Breazeale writes for Mississippi State University.

e-mail: [email protected]

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