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Horticulturist predicts lower blueberry yields
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- One night in March is preventing Mississippi's blueberry growers from harvesting a significant portion of their 2003 crop in May and June.
John Braswell, horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, said the state's commercial growers typically harvest about 4 million pounds a year. Most of the damage from the sudden March 31 freeze occurred on the eastern side of the state.
"That one night has kept us from a perfect year," Braswell said. "Statewide, we may harvest about 70 percent of the crop."
Luis Monterde of Purvis is less optimistic for Mississippi and Louisiana growers.
"We will be fortunate if we have 50 to 60 percent of last year's crop," Monterde said. "Agriculture is a risky business, and in this case, the riskier varieties were the ones hurt the most."
Braswell said the earlier varieties were the primary victims of the freeze. Growers gamble on those varieties because prices are higher for the first berries harvested. While current prices are near $18 per flat, the price around June 20 will be closer to $12.
Allen McReynolds, the Wayne County Extension director, said growers lost a lot of this year's crop during the late freeze. Cool, overcast weather slowed maturity and further delayed blueberries from reaching early markets.
"I'm sure the growers are disappointed because they would have had more early berries for the early prices," McReynolds said. "Remember, it's not a loss just in yields; it's a loss in the best prices for those early yields. That's what really hurts."
Braswell said the plants are most vulnerable when the flowers are older or the fruit is younger. The Rabbiteye and Southern Highbush varieties bloom at the same time, but the latter produces fruit three to four weeks earlier.
"Some years, a late frost may hurt one type more than another. This year, early varieties from both types were hurt," Braswell said.
Florida growers are first to the markets with blueberries harvested from late March until early May. Mississippi's blueberry season usually begins in late April with Southern Highbush varieties Misty, Biloxi and Sharp. The Rabbiteye variety harvest begins in late May with Climax and Premier. Harvest continues through the middle of July.
Northern states produce from late June until September. Imports from Chile during the winter months enable U.S. consumers to enjoy fresh blueberries all year.
"Blueberry consumption increases along with availability," Braswell said. "People are more interested in blueberries because of the potential health benefits, and then the taste keeps them coming back for more."