Florida Blueberry Grower: Roller Coaster of Warm, Cold Temperatures

Clint ThompsonBlueberries, Florida

Photo by Clint Thompson/Blueberries ripening in Citra, Florida.

By Clint Thompson

Weather challenged Florida blueberry production this year. It continues to disrupt harvest plans for growers who have already started picking this year’s crop.

“It’s been a roller coaster of warm and then cold; warm and then cold. By the time it gets going, it gets shut down,” said Gary Smith, producer located in Winter Haven, Florida, who also serves on the board of directors for the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. “It’s been a challenging start.”

Photo by Clint Thompson/Shows Gary Smith.

The weather challenges have been present all winter for blueberry producers. Smith said his blueberry crop failed to receive any chill hours, forcing him to utilize dormex, a plant growth regulator. While it helps produce a crop, the blueberries won’t develop as quick as growers would prefer.

“(Winter weather) was a challenge. We had zero chill hours. Blueberries like at least 150 chill hours in Florida. We have to use dormex to try to get them to flower and leaf out,” Smith said. “We had zero hours under 45 (degrees Fahrenheit) before we used dormex in January. Now we’re looking at 160 or 170 hours too late for when we want them. Now we don’t want the chill hours, and here they are.”

Smith utilizes a significant number of H-2A workers during this time of year. They’ve had to pivot in their work responsibilities as well.

“Right now, a lot of the H-2A workers that we use have other jobs they can go to also. They stay busy,” Smith said. “But then we can call them and say, ‘We need 90 or 100 people.’ Eventually we will ramp up to 250 pickers or more, probably.”

On a positive note, though, this year’s crop looks promising for Florida growers.

“South Florida and central Florida are both harvesting. They haven’t fully ramped up yet. Of course, South Florida is a little bit further ahead as they usually are with that evergreen system of being further south,” said Doug Phillips, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) blueberry Extension coordinator at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. “There will be some small to modest amounts of fruit being harvested soon. I would think within the next couple of weeks, this month, you’ll start to see Florida fruit in stores.”