Blueberry growers under intense pressure

By Nikki Kallio

When Elizabeth White teamed up with the USDA in 1910 to grow blueberry hybrids on her New Jersey farm, it was the beginning of an industry that would eventually have a notable impact on the southwest lakeshore of Michigan.

Growers eventually discovered Michigan’s acidic soil, combined with the moderating effect of the lake on climate, was ideal for blueberry crops. By World War II, the state had a sizable blueberry industry that continued to expand, said Mark Longstroth, Michigan State University Extension small-fruit educator.

In 2014, the state ranked first in acreage of blueberry production. Michigan is consistently one of the top producers of blueberries in the nation, along with Washington and Georgia, according to the USDA.

Now, growers face a number of pressures that has them reassessing how they approach production, decrease costs and increase yields.

“We are where the cranberry industry was 10 or 15 years ago,” Longstroth said. “There are just too many blueberries.”

For one thing, new varieties have allowed the North American growing season to expand from April, where Florida fields are the first to produce, through October, when Michigan growers and those in British Columbia are the last of the season to pick blueberries. Now that South American growers are also players in the market, fresh blueberries are available year-round.

About a third of Michigan’s crop is fresh blueberries and the rest are for the processed or frozen market. But with year-round production of fresh berries, excess berries are frozen, lowering prices in that market.