Campus News

Grant will grow state’s blueberry business

Blueberries are becoming big business in Georgia. UGA experts plan to use a $1.7 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant to lead an effort to make the Southeast the leading producer of the fruit.

The U.S. has 75,000 acres of cultivated blueberries-one third of that is grown in the South. The region is on track to become the hub of U.S. blueberry production within the next five years, according to Harald Scherm, a plant pathologist with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

A spring freeze severely damaged Georgia’s blueberry crop in 2007, but the 2006 crop was worth $75.8 million. The berry has the potential to add millions of dollars to rural economies, according to Gerard Krewer, a fruit crop horticulturalist with UGA Cooperative Extension.

“Blueberries are grown in rural areas, areas that really need economic boosting,” Krewer said. “Blueberries are becoming a major horticultural commodity in southeast Georgia.”

Scherm will lead a team that includes Krewer, CAES horticulturists Dan MacLean and Anish Malladi, plant pathologist Phil Brannen, food scientist Rob Shewfelt and engineer Changying Li. The team will collaborate with colleagues in Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia and Mississippi.

The grant will be used to develop a way to harvest the berries mechanically while not damaging or dropping a majority of the fruit. The research team also will use the grant funds to genetically improve fruit quality and to fight diseases that are beginning to plague blueberry bushes.

Georgia producers predominately grow two types of blueberries: rabbiteye and southern highbush.

Rabbiteye-the variety traditionally grown in Georgia-has a thicker skin and is generally harvested in June and July. The development of the southern highbush variety allows growers to start harvesting blueberries in April and May, a period when berries are in short supply and prices are much higher.

Farmers now need machines that better harvest their crop. Current harvesting machinery drops too many blueberries-as much as 25 percent of the crop­-and can bruise delicate berries. Damaged berries are only good for the frozen market, and producers get much lower prices for frozen berries than they do for fresh.

Besides coming up with a better harvesting method, another way to deal with the thin skins of southern highbush is to breed new varieties with thicker skins or with a crispy flesh.

And with new varieties come diseases not seen before, like Bacterial leaf scorch and Botryosphaeria stem blight.