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Blueberry growers expect bumper crop
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi's blueberry growers have much to celebrate with an anticipated bumper crop, good prices and high-quality berries.
John Braswell, horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Poplarville, said ideal weather has been the No. 1 contributor to this season's success.
"This year, the weather has been really good, and we've been able to get a lot of fruit out of the field. We also have been able to pack a bigger percentage of the crop fresh," Braswell said. "Last year, we had rains that hampered our harvest, and we wound up packing a lot of the crop for the frozen market."
Prices for frozen blueberries are usually about $1 per pound, compared to $1.50 per pound for fresh. Braswell expects this year's yields to significantly top 2004's 5.3 million pounds.
"I would say we'll probably harvest around 6 million pounds this year," he said.
Cool nights in April and May caused this year's crop to come in a little later than usual and also inhibited some bee pollination activity. However, those cool temperatures increased vegetative growth during the spring, which helped to improve the quality of the blueberries.
Jerry Hutto is the general manager of the Wayne County Blueberry Growers Association and owner of Amber's Blueberry Farm and Nursery in Waynesboro. Hutto said he believes 2005 has seen one of the best blueberry seasons in the last 20 years.
"It's been a super year for several reasons. No. 1 is the weather. We had one rain during the season, and it was a much-needed rain that helped us get the good-quality fruit we like to produce," Hutto said. "The crop has a tremendous amount of fruit. It's probably the best year as far as poundage goes."
Excellent prices and high demand also are contributing to blueberry producers' success. Prices for fresh blueberries are at about $17 per flat.
"I've never seen prices stay in the range they're in this late in the season," Hutto said. "And there's such a tremendous demand for blueberries this year that we've had to limit the amount that buyers can take. It's really a seller's market."
Braswell said blueberries have experienced a surge in popularity because of their health benefits, which include being high in antioxidants, fiber and vitamins C and E. Blueberry consumption also is reported to help fight cancer and diabetes, reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease, and lower bad cholesterol levels.
"In addition to these health benefits, consumers also are getting more conscious of who grows their food. There's a big interest in farmer's markets, pick-your-own operations and direct sales from the farms," Braswell said. "Consumers like this arrangement because they know they're getting good-quality, fresh produce."
David Reese, owner of Reese Orchard in Sessums, has grown blueberries and used the pick-your-own selling method since the early 1980s.
"Folks love to pick their own fruit. They want it fresh off the tree, and they get to pick what they want," he said.
Tina Cox of West Point said she tries to visit the Reese farm at least once a year to pick fresh blueberries. She brings along her 7-year-old daughter, Anna, and her mother, Sue Reese.
"My daughter loves blueberries. When we first started coming out here to pick blueberries, she wouldn't even try them, but once I got her to taste the blueberries, she loved them," Cox said.
Anna is home-schooled, and Cox said picking blueberries has become an educational field trip they can discuss when they return home.
Mississippi is home to approximately 275 blueberry producers who grow blueberries on more than 2,000 acres of land. Harvest typically runs from the last week of May through the second week of July.