Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

This spring was one of the worst seasons ever for Florida blueberry growers.

Before growers were scheduled to begin harvesting in mid- to late March, their typical start, they were optimistic they could pack a record 25 million pounds.

Weather and labor issues, however, collided and limited production to 17 million pounds.

Unfavorable weather delayed crop maturity and once harvesting began in early to mid-April, there weren’t enough workers to harvest the crops, said Bill Braswell, owner of Auburndale, Fla.-based Polkdale Farms and Juliana Plantation.

Workers became impatient with the tardy start and moved to other crops, causing growers to scramble for help.

Because growers can fall even further behind during a late harvesting cycle, many abandoned parts of fields, said Braswell, who’s also farm manager of Bartow, Fla.-based Clear Springs Packing LLC.

Though fruit was in short supply during the early weeks of the season, prices fell, Braswell said.

“The anticipation of some volume was pushing pricing down. This went on for almost three weeks. You could go into any store and you couldn’t find blueberries the first week of April. Yet prices went down.”

On April 12, flats of 4.4-ounce clamshells from central and north Florida opened the season at $24-30 but declined to $20-28 by the end of the month and finished at $17-22 in early May. Flats of 6-ounce clamshells marketed for $16-20 in mid-May before finishing at $11-16 as Georgia production increased.

Prices did stabilize, so the deal wasn’t too unfavorable, but because few could supply fruit, growers missed those higher prices.

This year, Florida didn’t peak until early May.

“Our biggest problem was we shouldn’t have run any promotions until late April,” Braswell said. “We had promotions scheduled in early April when we didn’t have fruit. It was insane.”

The mismatch between expected supply and retail promotions and the disappointing prices points to the need for an organization monitoring and promoting the state’s blueberries.

In 2011, Braswell tried to persuade his fellow growers to create such an organization.

Momentum, however, stalled and growers appear disinterested. Braswell was the only one who was pushing it.

Blueberry and strawberry growers should form a Florida berry commission-type organization that could be managed by an existing organization such as the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

As strawberries are primarily a winter crop, the marketing of the two berries wouldn’t overlap much and such an effort could gather additional funds from growers of both commodities and help fortify the Sunshine State’s leadership in berry production.

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