Blueberries down. Pick your own? Call first


NEW ORLEANS — Call first. That’s the message to remember if you want to pick your own blueberries: Call the farm before you go there to make sure they have some fruit. It’s especially important this year.

Last year, the crop was early and abundant. This year, not so hot.

A grower at one of the several you-pick farms within driving distance of New Orleans says it’s the worst crop he has seen in 20 years. And at least one popular farm is not opening at all.

Still, there will be local blueberries in supermarkets, farmers markets, and at you-pick farms. The Poplarville (Miss.) Blueberry Jubilee will celebrate its 30th year June 8.

"Some of our farms did lose a lot of the crop," said Donna Marshall, horticulturist with the USDA Southern Horticulture Lab in Poplarville. "After plants had bloomed and set the little bitty fruit, they had a late spring freeze."

The further north the farms are, the worse their freeze problems.

"Most of the commercial growers have frost protection, wind machines. Some flew helicopters over their fields to save their crops. Most big commercial growers are doing OK; they lost probably 10 to 20 percent of fruit, but will still have a good crop," Marshall said.

Amy Phelps, owner of Pearl River Blues, an organic farm outside Lumberton, Miss., is not opening at all in 2013. In addition to freezes, the farm was hit with a "crazy hailstorm" on Easter. (She also broke her foot and then fell down a flight of stairs and broke her femur, which is another horrifying story.)

"The reality is that fields do fail some years. Weather happens. If you’re really growing sustainably, this is the reality. This is the ugly year," she said. "Things happen. Just like falling down stairs.

"What we’re hearing from customers is, they understand."

Roland Hokanson of the you-pick farm Blueberry Ridge in Picayune planned to open June 1, but when his fruit is gone, it’s gone, he said.

"This year, I’ve never seem them this poor," Hokanson said. "We had good bloom, lots of blossoms and late frost. When frost hits the blossoms, it’s all over. I have very few berries on the late bloomers. It’s not worth driving here from New Orleans."

However, Eric Stafne, assistant extension professor of the Mississippi State University Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, said he wouldn’t discourage people from picking their own.

"Some places had more damage than others," Stafne said. "There are still blueberries out there. It just depends on the varieties growing, and the location. From what I’ve seen, there’s plenty to come and pick.

"It was a really devastating freeze event. It’s been a tough year. But you know, that’s farming."

John Braswell is executive secretary of the Gulf South Blueberry Growers Association, a group that represents about 140 farms with roughly 2,000 acres of berries, most of which are sold commercially. Braswell said the crop is roughly half of last year’s.

"Last year we marketed about 6 million pounds of fruit, worth about $11 million," Braswell said. This year, "it’s way off. There’s not a lot of fruit on the bushes."

Braswell said the traditional niche for berries from the Gulf states has been northern cities, and most planted early-ripening varieties to ship there in mid-May through the end of June. Starting the third week of June, and into July, lots of fruit comes from New Jersey and Michigan.

This year, Climax and Premiere varieties were hit hard by the freeze, but some of the newer varieties, especially Prince and Alapaha, seemed to perform really well, Braswell said.

And in the past five years, most of the Gulf south crop ends up in Gulf coast kitchens.

"Weather happens…This is the ugly year." – Blueberry farmer Amy Phelps

"For a long time, people here weren’t as familiar with blueberries as in the north," Braswell said. "Now, anything you pick up has information on the health benefits of blueberries."

The proliferation of farmers markets also has helped keep local berries in the region, Braswell said, by providing farmers with viable markets.

Most of the you-pick farms grow rabbiteye, an early-ripening variety. The season usually opens around June 1; last year, many opened in mid-May.

Bill McGee of Sunhillow Berry Farm in Pearl River, La., said, "I have the same problem everybody else does. No crop. Literally, no crop. I’ve been doing this almost 20 years, and I have never seen it like this." He also grows mayhaws to sell, but that crop was completely wiped out.

The only variety he will be picking this year is Tifblue, which is the late late-bloomer.

"People have been calling me, and I’m telling them you can come out and try, but I have no ripe berries at all. I’m thinking maybe mid- to late June" before they ripen.

A spot check of you-pick farms closer to Lake Pontchartrain seemed to indicate they fared better.

"We’re not wiped out; we’re just not ripe yet," said Carol Dufrene of Ridemore Ranch and Berry Farm in Covington. "We have some blackberries, but not blueberries.

"We should have opened two weeks ago. We have bushes full of blueberries, but they’re just not turning like they should. We have had too much cool weather."

The rain is helping the you-pick vegetables the farm offers, "but we need the sunlight for the berries. We’re overwhelmed with zucchini right now," Dufrene said.

The website of Blue Harvest Farms, off State Hwy. 21 in Covington, which has 5,000 bushes in several varieties, states that due to crop losses, their season won’t open until June 8 at the earliest, and they are likely to be open only on Saturdays.

Pick-your-own farms are listed by state on www.pickyourown.org. (Among their general picking tips: Always call in advance. In addition to availability, ask how to get there. Many a pick-your-own trip to a rural area has been derailed by reliance on the GPS.)

Mark Bridgers, chairman of the Blueberry Jubilee in Poplarville, said there will be fresh blueberries at the festival, as well as 125 arts and crafts vendors, about 100 to 125 cars in the car show, plus a 5K run, live music and food. The festival is 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 8. Braswell, who is on the festival’s council, said the usual 20 or so growers will be bringing blueberries.

Bridgers said attendance ranges from 4,000 to 8,000 at the festival.

"Our population is only 2,500, so that’s a major event," Bridgers said. "Most people who come from the city say they like to experience the small-town atmosphere for the day. If you live in New Orleans, this is culture shock."

Yearly attendance depends on the weather, just like the blueberry crop.

"It’s just one of those years," said Sunhillow’s McGee. "You’ve got to accept it. There’s nothing you can do about it."

County agent Stafne said that when the crop is diminished, fewer berries per plant usually means larger berries, and berries that are a little bit sweeter. So consumers who pick their own and freeze them get a benefit in that way, too.

"Of course, in any situation like this, call before going" berry picking, Stafne said. "That’s always a good thing to do."

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

Judy Walker/The Times-Picayune