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Blueberry Harvest Yields Survivors
POPLARVILLE -- As harvest proceeds, some blueberry growers are finding a few more survivors than they had expected after an early March freeze sent temperatures plummeting into the teens for several nights.
Mississippi has about 1,700 acres of blueberries, but only about 900 acres -- primarily south of Hattiesburg -- will yield fruit this year.
John Braswell, extension horticulture specialist in Poplarville, said the Miss-Lou Blueberry Growers Cooperative usually has four blueberry stations -- in Wiggins, Waynesboro, Collins and McComb. Because of the fruit shortage, only the Wiggins station is open this year.
"The Wiggins Blueberry Drop Station has been receiving about 600 flats a day, compared to about 1,800 a day in a normal year or 4,000 a day when all four stations are open," Braswell said. "Prices have been running about $2 per flat higher than last year."
Braswell said growers are harvesting the earlier varieties. Later varieties will follow soon. At the peak of the harvest, the Wiggins station will receive about 1,000 flats daily resulting inn about one-third the normal quantity for a season.
"The quality of the berries is very good since the plants could devote all their energy into fewer berries," Braswell said.
University specialists were disappointed that growth regulators had little effect on helping additional fruit develop after the freeze. Research continues to help make recommendations to growers on the species or cultivar selections best adapted to Mississippi's climate.
Dr. Frank Matta, horticulturist and researcher with the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station, and research assistants are freezing the individual parts of the blueberry flower.
The research indicated temperatures in the mid-20s kill the outer parts of a blueberry bloom, but the ovary survives temperatures down to about 22 degrees.
"Before this information was available, producers would look at freeze-damaged flowers and assume they had lost a blueberry crop," Matta said. "But our research shows not all freeze-damaged flowers are a total loss."
Braswell said three new varieties released to nurseries from the Poplarville Research and Experiment Station show promise for growers in the future. The late blooming, early fruiting Southern high bush varieties are two years away from public availability.
Luis Monterde of B & M Blueberry Farm in Lamar County said many new growers lost their entire crop because most planted early varieties. More than 90 percent of the early fruit was lost.
"Most growers had treated their crops for diseases before the freeze. They will never recover that cost," Monterde said. "Natural disasters like the freeze are a risk of the industry. It goes with the ground. Most consumers do not realize what is involved in food production."