(April 8, 3:20 p.m.) Buyers should expect a later start — and higher prices — for Florida’s blueberries.

After freeze damage in Georgia, some Florida grower-shippers also said they expect a little longer marketing window.

Central and southern Florida shipments began in smaller volumes in late March and early April, and growers quoted $30-32 f.o.b.s for flats of 12 4.4-ounce clamshells in mid-April.

Growers also expected a smooth transition from Chilean to domestic fruit.

Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., on April 7 said central Florida’s production in the Bartow and Haines City areas was about 25% under way. At the same time, packinghouses in northern Florida near Gainesville were expected to start in late April, a week later than commencement of central Florida’s volume.

Fewer Chilean shipments

Mixon said Chilean shippers had for the most part finished their U.S. shipments by the second week of April and that the deal didn’t have any inventories of Chilean fruit.

During the last week of March, Chilean shippers sent 63 tons of blueberries to the U.S., versus 164 tons last year during the same week, Mixon said.

He said recent large processor inventories, which followed high berry prices, would likely soon dissipate with more competitive pricing.

For central and northern Florida, the U.S. Department of Agriculture April 6 reported flats of 12 4.4-ounce cups with lids medium-large selling for $26-30. For Chilean arrivals at the ports of Miami and Los Angeles, flats of 12 6-ounce cups with lids medium sold for $22-24 while flats of 12 4.4-ounce cups with lids medium sold for $18-20.

Last year, in early April, those 4.4-ounce clamshells sold for $18-22.

Mario Flores, director of blueberry product management for Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC’s Grand Junction, Mich., office, said Chile didn’t encroach into the Florida deal this season as much as it did last year, and that the market was seeing much less volume in early April than last year, when vessels arrived through April 14.

Similar high prices expected

Flores said he thinks the market will be similarly priced to last year.

“There still isn’t enough fruit (on the market) to put price pressure downwards at this point,” Flores said April 6. “With Chile finishing up, there will be a good market for Florida and Georgia production.”

Flores characterized the Florida crop as a week to 10 days later than what many buyers expected, and said promotable Florida volume should hit by April 20. He said damage from January and February freezes harmed about 20% of the crop and left some scarring, discoloration and brought a higher cull rate.

Flores said he expects Georgia to start harvest a week or two later than normal in terms of significant volume. Naturipe has growers in the northern Florida area of Waldo.

Florida’s colder than normal winter temperatures affected only volume, not quality, said Kenny Nova, general manager of Bartow, Fla.-based Clear Springs Packing LLC.

Nova said the cold weather has brought out more berries and has helped increase sizes. He said the season so far has produced strong quality.

High quality fruit

Damage caused by the January and February freezes should lessen Georgia’s early crop but provide a strong late crop, Nova said. He said the later Georgia start should provide Florida growers an extended window this season.

When California production begins in mid-May, Nova said he thinks the additional volume could lower prices.

Flores said California’s deal, which normally ramps up the third week of May at Delano, Calif., should bring promotable volumes during late May and early June.

While Georgia volume is expected to be lower than normal, buyers should expect plenty of promotable volume in late May from California, Flores said.

Though Georgia growers could start production April 27, movement may not begin until May 3, Mixon said.

“There will be a lot of pressure in the market (then) for berries,” Mixon said.

Mixon, who said he expected Florida’s promotable volume to begin April 20, said SunnyRidge plans to ship 3.5 million pounds, down from earlier season estimates of a little more than 4 million pounds.

Flores said Naturipe’s growers expect Florida to produce 9 million to 10 million pounds, similar to last season’s 9.3 million pounds.

Freezes delay Florida, Georgia blueberry deals
Workers at SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., pack blueberries in mid-April. Shippers say a later start and higher prices are in store for Florida blueberries, and freeze damage in Georgia could prolong Florida’s marketing window.

Courtesy SunnyRidge Farm Inc.