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Small Berries Yield Big Financial Impact
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- What blueberries lack in size they make up for in their economic impact in Mississippi's economy.
Jerry Hutto, a blueberry grower in Waynesboro, said he believes there is more money in blueberries per acre than in any other crop. He estimated that there are 2,000 acres of commercial blueberries in Mississippi.
"In a good year, growers may average 7,000 to 8,000 pounds per acre. This year, we may produce 3,000 to 5,000 because of the late freeze," Hutto said. "Two good years in a five-year period will more than offset the bad years."
Despite the losses, Hutto still predicts a good year for blueberries.
"Whenever plants lose some fruit, the remaining berries grow bigger," Hutto said.
John Braswell, associate horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, said commercial growers produced about 2 million pounds of blueberries in 1999. At an average price of $1.50 per pound, blueberries brought in about $3 million last year.
Braswell said an April 9 freeze killed about a third of the blueberry crop across the state. Elevation made a significant difference in losses, with low-lying fields suffering more damage than others. Last year's drought following harvest had already contributed to a reduced crop potential.
"Recent reports of the health benefits of blueberries are generating a lot of interest in the crop this year," Braswell said. "Out of 40 fruits and vegetables studied, blueberries were ranked the No. 1 antioxidant and they improved cognitive skills and balance, similar to age reversal."
An on-line publication by MSU's School of Human Sciences said some may describe blueberries as the "fountain of youth" because of their high levels of antioxidants, which delay or prevent the deterioration of cells by oxygen. Similar health reports may be the key to blueberries' continuing popularity with consumers.
Luis Monterde, a grower in Purvis, said research underway at the South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station at Poplarville promises better years ahead for the state's producers.
"Growers need to always look for new varieties and technologies that will help give them an edge on the market," Monterde said. "Some varieties give protection against late freezes and enable us to shoot for an earlier market. Southern highbush varieties Jubilee and Pearl River are two of the newer varieties that may give that edge."
Monterde has begun harvesting some of the state's earliest berries. The majority of the Mississippi crop will be harvested between the last of May and July 10.