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Blueberry — rush to harvest

Despite high yields and good-quality berries, a delayed harvest and low prices are impacting Mississippi blueberry growers.

Blueberry growers in the state started harvesting in late May and early June, about two weeks behind schedule.

“The prolonged cold winter delayed blooming. We usually see blooms the last week of February, but blooms didn’t appear this year until the third week of March,” said John Braswell, Mississippi State University horticulture specialist at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, Miss. “Once it got warm, everything came in at once, and growers are scrambling a bit to get it all harvested.”

Braswell said that with so much fruit ripening at once, more pickers are needed to harvest the berries. This year, however, there is a significant shortage of workers.

“We’ve been relying heavily on machines to do the picking,” said Greg Saulters, manager of Blue River Blueberry Farms in Mount Olive, Miss. “We are out there harvesting as much as we can, as quickly as we can.”

Saulters said he would prefer pickers over using machines, but cost is a concern. “It is less expensive for many of us to use the machines this year,” he said.

Luis Monterde, a blueberry grower and packer in Purvis, Miss., also said he and many others are relying heavily on picking machines. Monterde said many growers have a 50 percent increase in production, but not the means to get the crop picked as efficiently.

“The machines are helping us get the berries harvested, but they don’t make an ideal substitute for hand-picked berries,” he said. “The shelf-life of machine harvested berries is about a week shorter than that of the hand-picked ones.”

Another obstacle blueberry growers face this season is lower prices. “Prices are down because a large volume of New Jersey berries entered the market before Mississippi berry farmers could get their crop harvested,” Braswell said. “Right now, wholesale prices are $14 a flat, about $1.40 a pound.”

Braswell said Mississippi produced 4.7 million pounds of blueberries in 2009 at a value of around $6.4 million.

There is still a chance for Mississippi growers to compete in the market, and for prices to go up.

“Yields are good and the blueberries are of excellent quality,” Braswell said. “There is still time for catching up and growers are putting in the work to do just that.”

Monterde said he and other growers are concerned about prices but are thankful for the large yields.

“We have a late crop and prices are lower, but we’ve got good yields,” he said. “Every year is different. Each one brings its own set of challenges and benefits.”

Saulter agreed that there is variability year-to-year in the blueberry growing business.

“Growing blueberries is like growing any other crop. It can be a gamble,” he said. “This season has had its challenges, but we know that we’ll face some sort of issue in any season.”

Braswell said consumers have a great opportunity this year for picking their own blueberries.

“Pick-your-own farms are open and ready for business,” he said. “There are some great-looking berries ready for people to pick.”

TAGS: Crops
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