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Blueberries prosper with ideal conditions
By Allison Matthews
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Plenty of cold weather this winter and a steady upswing of temperatures this spring helped secure a prosperous season for Mississippi's blueberry crop.
"We're looking forward to an excellent season because by the end of April we've had no damage from late cold spells. We'll have as close to a 100 percent crop as we've ever had," said Waynesboro grower Jerry Hutto.
This winter provided enough chill hours when the temperature was below 45 degrees that blueberry bushes were ready to come out of dormancy once spring weather began. Temperatures did not dip back into unexpected freezing conditions, so growers are expecting maximum yields.
Hutto said 2000 was a good season for growers and prices were high, but this year looks to be even better. Wayne County commercial growers are expecting to produce about 1 million pounds of blueberries.
"Most of our berries are already booked and sold. We're expecting great prices -- as good or better than last year when we averaged $1.50 to $1.60 per pound," Hutto said.
John Braswell, associate horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, said commercial growers produced about 4 million pounds of blueberries in 2000.
"Everything looks real good for 2001. We had a late cold spell in mid-April, but the temperatures did not fall low enough to do damage anywhere in the state," Braswell said. "We usually feel like we're in the clear and safe from freeze damage by April 15."
Harvesting will begin about May 20. Braswell predicted starting prices will average $21 per flat and start dropping as more fruit becomes available. Mississippi's early season helps growers get top prices before northern blueberries start competing in the market. By the end of June, blueberry prices will be at a seasonal low.
"We should average about $13 to $14 per flat over the season," Braswell said.
Most growers trying new blueberry varieties are two to three years away from seeing new bushes in full production. Southern highbush varieties Jubilee, Magnolia, Sharp Blue and Misty are among the bushes that may allow growers to begin harvesting earlier and stretch production.
"There will be advantages of these varieties because they are more resistant to late frosts. Growers will be able to harvest earlier and get better prices because there are fewer on the market in April and early May," Braswell said.
Over the past few years, consumer interest in blueberries has risen as reports have announced the fruit has high levels of antioxidants which improve cognitive skills.