An expected early start marks the beginning of this year’s domestic blueberries.

Harvesting in Florida, which brings the first fresh U.S. berries of the season, could be as much as three weeks earlier than normal, grower-shipper say.

“There could be a very good crop from Florida in terms of volume,” Brian Bocock, the Grand Junction, Mich.-based vice president of product management for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla., said in mid-February.

“As of now, all the conditions have been favorable toward a quality crop and a potentially large crop.”

Florida growers planned to begin harvesting small volumes in late February, considerably earlier than the normal early- to mid-March start.

“The berries look really good,” JC Clinard, senior vice president of Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., said in mid-February.

“If we don’t have any freeze between now and the time of harvest, we should be OK.”

After Florida begins, Georgia typically enters the deal in late April and North Carolina starts in mid-May.

While California production usually begins in late March, the Golden State doesn’t normally peak until mid-May, with heavy volume running through mid-June, Bocock said.

“California is the only other state producing and remains a long ways from Eastern markets, so the Southeast fills an important void when we don’t have imported product coming in,” he said.

“The Southeast becomes a perfect fit for additional promotions to get to the end of June and July for retailers in the Southeast that like to promote local.”

As Florida typically finishes by Memorial Day, Georgia and North Carolina usually run through mid-July and overlap New Jersey’s mid-June start.

“The Southeast is an important growth area,” said Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif. “They kick off the season and get people to think about blueberries. People are starting to consume blueberries a little earlier than they may have in the past.”

At 136 million pounds, the major producing states in the Southeast — Florida, Georgia and North Carolina — accounted for about 25% of overall U.S. and Canadian 2012 highbush blueberry production and 27% of the deal’s fresh production, according to the council.

Villata said he expects 2013 to bring another record year of U.S. and Canadian production and exceed 2012’s 559 million pounds.

By 2015, Villata said he could see the U.S. and Canada producing up to 735 million pounds, an expected 27% increase.

The South and the West, which includes California, the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, represent the largest growing regions, he said.

“What we are seeing is there is a lot more production coming on each year,” Villata said.

“A lot of the South and the West have new plantings that have gone in. The increases in the East and the Midwest are really new varieties being planted on existing acreage that are yielding heavier yields.”

While Georgia’s fresh production has remained flat during the recent years, Villata said that’s likely because of freezes stunting growth. He said Georgia’s new growers and expanded acreage are giving it a bigger share of the market.

Production in Georgia, the largest Southern producing state, jumped from 56 million pounds in 2010 to 69 million pounds in 2012, Villata said.

“Georgia is still continuing to grow a substantial amount,” he said.

The Sunshine State is also experiencing significant growth.

Villata said Florida more than doubled production from 10.5 million pounds in 2008 to 22 million pounds, all shipping fresh, in 2011.

“Florida has had some hefty growth over the last four to five years,” Villata said.

“They have some varieties well-adapted to conditions in the state that are bringing more berries onto the market. That allows us to offer higher volumes of fresh blueberries earlier in the season than they did in the past.”

North Carolina remains a key part of the mix, helping keep the volume of domestic berries consistent from spring to summer, Villata said.

The state’s mid-May to July production isn’t seeing much new acreage but production is increasing, he said.

Julie Woodcock, executive director of the North Carolina Blueberry Council Inc., Atkinson, said acreage has increased from 5,500 acres in 2007 to more than 6,000 acres in 2012.

“The percentage of fresh is higher than the percentage of processed,” she said.

“Not that we’re slipping, but other states are aggressively coming on. Georgia has come on very quickly and the same with Florida. We are No. 6 in the U.S. Only a few years ago, we were No. 10 in the world.”