Moderated by Rick Badie

Georgia, the Blueberry State? Possibly. Blueberry production has surpassed that of peaches and sits as the state’s most lucrative fruit crop. Today, we explore how the berry knocked peaches from atop the fruit pile and acknowledge the economic impact these commodities provide the state.

Blueberries are a lucrative state crop

By Joe Cornelius Jr.

From humble beginnings in the 1960’s, blueberries have grown to more than 18,000 acres and 77 million pounds, with a substantial farm-gate value for Georgia farmers.

This growth explosion has been fueled by different factors: Southeast Georgia’s low land cost; perfect growing conditions in river beds and the periphery of the Okefenokee Swamp; ideal climate for highbush and rabbiteye (the two main types grown here); an early entrance into the North American marketplace and a long growing season.

During the early 1990’s, timber prices began to decrease drastically. The United States tobacco quota program had ended. Farmers began to look for a more profitable way to maximize investment returns. As farmers looked for a new crop, extensive research emerged that showed blueberries were possibly one of the most beneficial foods that could be added to one’s diet. Prices began to increase. Supply could not keep up with demand.

As with any crop, blueberries require an initial investment. Depending upon the condition of the land (ideally, former timberland), irrigation needs, plant costs and infrastructure improvements, investment costs can reach up to $20,000 per acre.

One of the greatest contributors to this cost is frost protection. Because South Georgia experiences mild winters and late frosts, an entire crop can be lost without adequate protection. Protection comes in the form of overhead irrigation and orchard fans. The costs of such protections for roughly 100 acres can be more than $400,000 and $210,000, respectively.

Once a crop has produced and it is time for harvest, Georgia blueberry farmers face the same problems as any other commodity. Fuel, labor and processing costs can eat into any farmer’s bottom line.

Labor costs and related issues have been, and continue to be, the driving forces that cause farmers to look for varieties that can be harvested solely by machine. A far greater percentage of blueberries are mechanically harvested, but these are less profitable. For example, the southern highbush variety ripens earlier but is almost entirely harvested by hand. High labor costs and an uncertain migrant labor force continue to be a concern.

As Georgia’s blueberry acreage has increased, infrastructure needs must be addressed, such as packing facilities to process the pounds that will be added to existing production as well as improvements to worn and overused county roads that carry our state’s most valuable fruit crop.

Blueberries had an annual value of $255 million and, as a crop, ranked 12th out of 60 commodities, according to the 2011 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report. That same year, peaches were ranked 32nd and had an annual value of $45 million.

Projections seem to indicate that Georgia’s blueberry crop will continue to grow. It takes about four years for a new field to reach full production. Current acreage does not equal current yield.

Growing consumer awareness and demand will help sustain and grow this important Georgia industry.

Joe Cornelius Jr. is chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commodity Commission.

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