Blueberries are one of the most successful agricultural crops today, and demand worldwide is rising. The industry just broke a record with more than 1 billion pounds of fresh and processed Highbush blueberries being produced globally.
With growing demand comes increased interest in growing blueberries commercially. Whether you are an established grower of other crops and you want to add blueberries to your offerings or you are new to farming all together, there are some key things to consider.
Blueberries are grown commercially in many regions of North America but mainly in the Pacific Northwest and the southeast and northeast United States. This is primarily because these areas offer ideal climates and soils and adequate water availability. Most blueberries require some level of chill hours to produce fruit. Certain varieties (Northern Highbush) need a specific length of time in dormancy in temperatures between 45 to 0 degrees. Other varieties (Southern Highbush and Rabbiteyes) thrive in warmer climates.
An increasing number of fresh-market blueberry growers are utilizing greenhouse tunnels, which provide a unique environment and protection from adverse weather. Greenhouse tunnels cost up to $15,000 per acre and require more technical management practices. Typically, tunnel growers look for a return on their investment with early or late harvest windows, when supply is more limited and prices tend to be higher.
In developing any blueberry growing system, careful advance planning is critical. Consider the 20-plus year crop cycle of blueberries; it is worth doing proper research and planning. Seeking out blueberry experts through extension offices, university agricultural departments, fruit growers and plant nurseries should dramatically shorten the learning curve and help to minimize missteps.
There are three key areas to consider when contemplating entry into commercial blueberry farming:
Growing site and preparation. Blueberries have a shallow, fibrous root system that requires special growing conditions to optimize plant health and fruit production. The most basic requirements are full sun and loose, well-drained acidic soils. Acid soils with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5 are ideal.
Water quality is important, too. Both pH and bicarbonate levels should be checked to ensure the best water conditions for blueberries. In many instances, amendments can be utilized to balance out any water issues as well.
Typically, you can plan on between 1,300 to 2,000 blueberry plants per acre. It is ideal to create flat-top raised beds in long rows with incorporated organic matter such as sawdust or wood chips (pine or fir) or peat moss. Blueberries should be planted as close as 2 ½ to 3 feet apart in hedgerows, or they can be spaced further apart. Space rows about 10 to 11 feet apart.
Markets. Having a comprehensive plan in place for distribution of your berries is critical. Are you growing for u-pick or to supply a farm stand? Will the berries be sold locally or shipped a distance? Are they going to frozen, processed or food product markets? Knowing your market will also help guide your variety selections.
Varieties and plants. Choosing varieties is an important part of the planning process. First, pick from the right category of varieties for your region, but your marketing strategy and goals can further define your variety mix. There are varieties ideally suited to a wide range of end uses, geographies and season of ripening.
Buy from a professional nursery that utilizes propagation and growing systems that optimize plant health and that ensure the variety you order is what you get. Healthy plants that are virus-tested and certified and that have proper branching and uniformity will result in more vigor in the field. Make sure patented varieties are propagated and sold legally.
Developing a blueberry operation is a big investment that lasts for decades. Proper advance market planning and site preparation, careful variety selection and investment in the highest-quality plants will pay dividends for years to come.
Amy Daniel is the marketing and brand manager for Fall Creek Farm & Nursery, Inc., www.fallcreeknursery.com.
Photos courtesy of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery, Inc.
Did you know?
Blueberries are one of the most successful agricultural crops today.