COVID-19 Devastates Blueberry Market for Florida Farmers

Blueberries ready to be picked in this file picture.

By Clint Thompson

It normally pays to have an early blueberry crop if you’re a Florida farmer. But as Ryan Atwood will attest, this has not been your normal year. Blueberry producers are not immune to the impact of COVID-19.

“Being early is a good thing. For a Florida blueberry grower, you’re trying to be early. Everything you do is to be early. The bad part of the deal was the coronavirus and just the timing of it. You couldn’t have timed it any worse for a Florida blueberry grower,” said Atwood, who lives in Mount Dora, Florida and farms 56 acres of blueberries, manages another 350 acres and is part-owner of the largest packing house in the Southeast United States.

Atwood’s blueberry crop was early this year due to a mild winter and high temperatures over the past couple of months accelerated growth. However, when Atwood started picking high volumes of blueberries, which was around March 18, is when the pandemic shut down the country.

“It just crashed literally within days. Right when Florida’s peaking or right about when it’s about to enter its peak, it was bad timing,” Atwood said. “Everybody was talking like we were going to have a 1 in 20 kind of year. Chile was done early. Their fruit wasn’t in the market. Normally they come in late. They kind of crowd into our market on the front end. But they were already out. Everybody was thinking it was ready to set up nice. But then out of left field… agriculture’s tough.”

Market prices reflect the pandemic’s impact.

“It’s 50% of the historical average price is what we were getting, so half of the money of what you would typically get because of the coronavirus,” Atwood said.

Atwood estimates he’ll finish harvesting this year’s crop in about a week.