When Elizabeth White teamed up with the USDA in 1910 to grow blueberry hybrids on her New Jersey farm, it was the beginning of an industry that would eventually have a notable impact on the southwest lakeshore of Michigan.
Growers eventually discovered Michigan’s acidic soil, combined with the moderating effect of the lake on climate, was ideal for blueberry crops. By World War II, the state had a sizable blueberry industry that continued to expand, said Mark Longstroth, Michigan State University Extension small-fruit educator.
In 2014, the state ranked first in acreage of blueberry production. Michigan is consistently one of the top producers of blueberries in the nation, along with Washington and Georgia, according to the USDA.
Now, growers face a number of pressures that has them reassessing how they approach production, decrease costs and increase yields.
“We are where the cranberry industry was 10 or 15 years ago,” Longstroth said. “There are just too many blueberries.”
About a third of Michigan’s crop is fresh blueberries and the rest are for the processed or frozen market. But with year-round production of fresh berries, excess berries are frozen, lowering prices in that market.About 20 years ago, Michigan and Maine each produced about half of the frozen blueberry market so the crops in those two states determined the price, Longstroth said.
“But in the 1990s, blueberry culture really took off,” as more discoveries about the healthy impact of the fruit were published and new cultivars allowed production in more states.
Michigan can produce between 80 million and 120 million pounds of blueberries at full production, but two severe winters – 2014 and 2015 – knocked that number down, Longstroth said. Additionally, because the industry is well-established, many of the plantings are older and do not produce as much fruit. It takes time and money to prune older bushes or put new ones in.
“It takes about 12 years to establish a planting, from when you plant to when it’s in full production,” Longstroth said. “Generally, you don’t get a lot of production the first four years.”
Growers also have trouble finding labor to handpick the fruit, which is necessary for fresh blueberry operations. Most of the labor pool is migrant and comes from Florida, Texas and Mexico.
“We just can’t get the number of pickers we need to harvest the volume of fresh fruit that we want,” he said.
Additionally, the industry is affected by a fruit fly from Asia called the spotted wing drosophila, which appeared on the California coast in 2008 and reached Michigan in 2010. The fly reproduces quickly, forcing growers to spray on a weekly basis, adding $500 to $600 per acre cost each season.
“We have an ideal spot to grow blueberries, and we have a very good market, which is at the end of the North American (season),” Longstroth said. “I see Michigan continuing to be a major player in the blueberry industry for a long time. It’s just got to readjust.”
- Blueberries are rich in vitamins A and C, have anti-inflammatory properties and have the most antioxidants of any fruit or vegetable, offering twice as many as spinach.
- Michigan produces more than 30 varieties of blueberry and leads the nation in production. In 2013, Michigan produced 47 million pounds of fresh blueberries and 67 million pounds for the frozen/processed market.
- Michigan blueberry growers average 5,000 pounds of blueberries per acre, but some have yielded up to 14,000 pounds per acre after adding extra irrigation and frost protection equipment.
- The state has about 600 growers, with about half of them with farms of less than 10 acres, which are generally you-pick operations.
Sources: The Blueberry People/MGM Marketing, www.blueberries.com, The Michigan Ag Council