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Mouth-watering berry season arrives in state
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- First strawberries then blueberries are ripening to provide Mississippians with locally grown, flavorful fruits for nutritious early summer dishes and snacks.
In Mississippi, strawberry harvest started in April and blueberries follow in early May. South Mississippi strawberry grower David Courtney said he is expecting a good quality crop in the absence of insect damage and disease pressure. His irrigated crop likely benefitted from the spring drought that reduced diseases.
Since he started growing strawberries a decade ago, Courtney said the prices for his product have changed very little, but the cost of production has increased.
"Strawberries are a very expensive crop to grow. It costs me about $4,000 per acre," Courtney said. "This is the first year we've decreased our strawberry acreage from as much as 6 or 8 acres down to 1.5 acres this year."
Mel Ellis of Mayhew Tomato Farm in Lowndes County is in his first strawberry season with a quarter acre of plants looking good. He said his goal is to produce the freshest, best-quality fruit for the area, not the cheapest. He has also discovered that labor costs make strawberries expensive to grow.
"I'll probably continue with strawberries next year, but I doubt I'll ever plant more than a half acre because of the labor costs," Ellis said. "When shoppers see produce at a farmers' market or roadside stand, the first question should be about freshness, not about price. If you aren't getting better quality, you might as well shop at a grocery store."
In the mid-1990s, Mississippi State University agricultural economist David Parvin took part in a strawberry production study. Results indicated that strawberries, like blueberries, bring about $1 per pound. Commercially harvested strawberries generate a total income of about $18,000 per acre.
Total direct expenses in the 10-year-old study were estimated at almost $5,300 for the pick-your-own system, about 70 percent of the commercial harvest system.
"Strawberries are a high-cost, high-valued crop. Strawberry production requires a high level of management in addition to a large amount of capital per acre, so new growers should give serious consideration to marketing opportunities before initiating strawberry production," Parvin said. "Successful strawberry production and marketing can result in relatively large returns per acre when compared to Mississippi's traditional broad-acreage agricultural enterprises."
In an attempt to improve their profit margins, blueberry growers aim for the earliest crops possible to take advantage of the best market prices. Luis Monterde of Purvis said he chooses blueberry varieties based on maturity dates, not yield potential.
"You want the blueberries as early as possible in May for harvest through about June 20. After that, the prices start dropping as other regions begin having berries," Monterde said.
Monterde, who is a member of the two-state Miss-Lou Blueberry Cooperative, said he is expecting a record yield in 2004. Blueberry plants did not experience a repeat of last year's late freeze damage and also had excellent pollination.
"So far, the fruit set is looking exceptionally good. We made sure we prevented diseases before any showed up in the plants," he said. "Because we're expecting such a large crop, prices are not likely to be as good as they were with last year's smaller crop."
Monterde said Miss-Lou cooperative growers averaged "best ever" prices of $22 per flat of blueberries in 2003. This year, prices may be between $14 and $16 per flat, which he said is closer to normal.
Dry conditions have forced growers to run irrigation constantly to retain fruit on the plants, which increases the cost of production for an already expensive crop to produce.
John Braswell, horticulture specialist with MSU's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Poplarville, said the state's commercial growers may produce about 5 million pounds this year, compared to the normal 4 million-pound harvest.
"Blueberries average about $1 per pound, so the increase should produce an additional million dollars for Mississippi's blueberry industry," Braswell said.