Oranges & Blueberries

By breeding blueberries uniquely adapted to the state’s climate, UF researchers help Florida growers produce fruit when no other state can
By Nathan Crabbe

BlueYouth Berries owner Carleen Gunter was a third-generation citrus farmer, but pressures on her Odessa orange groves from pests and disease proved to be too much.

In searching for a replacement crop, Gunter found that blueberries faced fewer problems and allowed for a quick turnaround between planting and production.

She credits the University of Florida for developing varieties of blueberries that thrive in the state, which historically hadn’t been a hotbed for the fruit.

“There wouldn’t be blueberry farms in Florida without the University of Florida,” she says.

Blueberries traditionally were grown in northern states such as Michigan because the plant needed cold weather during its dormant period. In 1976, UF’s blueberry breeding program released three varieties suited to Florida’s climate.

UF has bred a number of additional varieties over the years, with names such as Emerald, Flicker and Sweetcrisp, each suited for ripening periods in various parts of the state and having berries of different sizes and quality.

“This research has really created the Florida blueberry industry,” says John Beuttenmuller, executive director of the Florida Foundation Seed Producers, a nonprofit organization that supports the development of plant varieties at UF.

Blueberries generated more than $48 million in cash receipts in Florida in 2010, a 167 percent increase from 2003, according to the state agriculture department. The state ranks fifth in the U.S. in blueberry production and produces about one out of every 10 pints grown in the country, the department reported.

Florida Foundation Seed Producers received more than $1.7 million in the 2011 fiscal year from blueberry sales and licensing. Beuttenmuller says the nonprofit gets 30 cents per plant sold and money from licenses sold to nurseries and farmers who propagate their own plants, with 70 percent of royalties used to support the UF breeding program.

Blueberries are one of the Florida Foundation Seed Producers’ top crops along with strawberries, adds John Watson, a licensing agent with the group.

The varieties have allowed Florida to produce blueberries from late March to mid-May, between when the blueberry season ends in South America and begins north of Florida. Blueberries harvested in that window are more lucrative, fetching $5 per pound versus $2 afterward, says Alto Straughn, an Alachua County blueberry farmer.

Straughn says he has helped test hundreds of UF’s blueberry varieties over the years on his three farms in Alachua County. Those farms have grown from 25 acres in 1983 to 700 acres today, he says, with most of the growth occurring since the late 1990s. That period has coincided with improvements in the size and quality of the berries, he says.

“If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t appreciate how much change has occurred,” he says.

UF conducts blueberry research at its Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra. The latest research includes breeding or grafting blueberries with sparkleberry, which grows upright in a single trunk like a tree and would allow for mechanical rather than hand harvesting of the fruit.

“Maybe at some point down the road we will have a super blueberry plant,” says Jeff Williamson, a UF horticultural sciences professor who specializes in blueberries.

Other issues of focus include developing blueberries that need less water, are better suited to Florida’s soils and require little or no cold during their dormant period. The varieties have allowed blueberry farms to be established as far south as LaBelle, says Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.

“That’s the only reason we’re in business … This is not blueberry country,” he says.

Braswell was an airline pilot before becoming a blueberry farmer in Polk County a dozen years ago. Established agricultural companies such as Winter Haven-based Wm. G. Roe & Sons, founded in 1927 and marketing its products under the Noble brand, have diversified in adding blueberries to their traditional citrus production.

The blueberry season fits between seasons for citrus, allowing farm workers to be employed there for more of the year, says Bill Roe, company vice president. The research being done at UF has resulted in varieties that can be grown earlier and farther south, he says.

“We don’t have the money in our budgets to do the things they do,” Roe says.

Reprinted from the Gainesville Sun. 

This article was originally featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Explore Magazine.