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Weather delivers ideal berry seasons
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi berry producers are optimistic about their 2005 crops as strawberry harvest approaches the midway point and blueberries show promise of an upcoming bumper crop.
Mel Ellis of Mayhew Tomato Farm in Lowndes County is in his second year of strawberry production. He has doubled his crop size this year to half an acre, or 7,000 plants.
"Last year, we were just starting out, and we learned a lot," Ellis said. "Our infrastructure wasn't big enough. We needed more pickers. We probably left at least half the crop in the field because we couldn't get it out."
Ellis began harvesting this year during the first week of April and expects to wrap up the season in the middle of May.
"We pick each morning until around 9:30 or 10. Once the temperatures reach 70, the berries get softer and won't hold up under the handling," he said. "The longer temperatures stay below 70, the longer the strawberry season will last. The down side for me is that cool days mean a longer time until tomato season begins as well."
The strawberries on the Mayhew farm are Chandlers, an older variety that is unsuitable for shipping.
"Chandler is very sweet and juicy, but it won't look as fresh 24 hours after harvest. The emphasis with this variety is on taste, compared to grocery store varieties with emphasis on shipping ability," Ellis said.
Catering only to a local market, Ellis said he is selling out every day. Pint containers sell for $2 and flats (12 pints) for $16.
John Braswell, horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Poplarville, said the blueberry crop also is in line for large, healthy yields. Harvest typically runs from the last week of May through the second week of July.
"Growers harvested about 5.5 million pounds last year, and they should reach or exceed that level in 2005," Braswell said. "Unseasonable June rains reduced last year's crop, so we are hoping that will not happen again."
Last year's weather pushed more blueberries toward the frozen market. Prices for frozen produce are usually about $1 per pound, compared to $1.50 per pound for fresh.
Jerry Hutto, general manager of the Wayne County Blueberry Growers Association, said spring conditions have been near perfect, and the crop is slightly ahead of last year's at this time. The crop is maturing without any damage from late frosts or other weather conditions.
"Interest in blueberries is growing every year. Consumer demand is increasing with media reports of blueberries' health benefits, and more growers are being attracted to the business," Hutto said. "We added six members to our association this year. Now we have about 30 growers with 400 acres in eight counties, including some growers from Alabama."
Braswell said members of the state's three blueberry cooperatives have been taking part in food safety workshops organized by the MSU Extension Service.
"Blueberry growers are leading the pack in learning the best ways to avoid food contamination and to produce a safe, healthy product," Braswell said. "Producers are encouraged to make sure their workers are healthy and practice good hygiene, such as regular hand washing, when handling fruit during the entire process."
The workshops cover good agricultural practices that should be in place throughout the production and harvest process as well as good handling practices from the time workers pick the fruit and throughout the transporting process. Growers also learn about good manufacturing practices that will ensure clean grading lines and the importance of workers practicing good hygiene. There also is an emphasis on knowing where the fruit comes from so that it can be traced back if a problem occurs.