President's Letter: A Plan for the Future

I often get asked what are my thoughts of the Florida blueberry industry going forward.  This is a difficult question to answer much like someone asking what will the stock market return next year.  No one really knows for sure, there are a lot of variables.  However there are some things that we do know.  


We do know that Mexican production has gone from 1 million pounds in our window to 50 million pounds in a few short years.  We do know that even more fruit is going to be produced by Mexico in our market window in the near future.  We do know that this supply has dramatically affected the profitability of the Florida blueberry grower and will continue to do so in the future.


We know that in Mexico the average daily wage runs from around $10-12 US dollars.  They have less than 10 percent of our labor costs.  Blueberry budgets, if you include harvesting costs, typically run about 50 percent of cost attributed to labor.  A large part of that 50 percent is for hand harvesting our crop.  


There are other issues with Mexican blueberry production, as the farmers there have very little regulation to how they grow their crop compared to the US.  The Mexican government has been subsidizing operations with money for infrastructure.  US growers have been begging the government to work to even the playing field for American producers.  There seems to be some interest by our representatives in getting this fixed, however I personally am not one to count on the government.


So what is my plan and advice?  In order to even have a chance at surviving we need to reduce our labor costs. The biggest piece of labor cost is hand harvesting.  We must as an industry move to more mechanical harvesting.  What does that entail?  


You need to invest in a machine harvester, which retails new for between 150,000 and 300,000.  Alternatively, you could work with a contractor who utilizes machines.  They typically charge between 0.30 and 0.40 cents a pound.  Currently Florida does not have varieties to mechanically harvest our whole crop.  However some farms have begun to harvest anywhere from 20-50% of their crop with the lower end of range being the most typical.


To properly utilize machines you need to have a packinghouse that has the proper equipment to handle mechanically harvested fruit.  The packinghouses need to have blowers, color and soft sorters and they need to have enough capacity to be able to slow down the packing line to properly sort the fruit.  Mechanically harvested fruit sometimes is negatively thought of as a fresh pack due to the fact that it may not be sorted properly at the packinghouse.


Not every variety can handle machine harvesting.  For example, you never would want to harvest Springhigh with a machine for a fresh pack.  Many growers have begun reinvesting in their fields by removing old varieties and planting new, more machine-harvestable varieties.  The University of Florida breeding program has been scaling up its efforts to evaluate and identify potential new selections specifically for machine harvesting.


If something is not done to decrease the amount of Mexican produce in our market window, fruit maturity timing will be less critical.  It seems odd to a Florida blueberry grower to think that timing would not matter.  However there may come a day when the market price does not start out at its highest point and drop significantly every day throughout the season.  


Many of us are used to getting into our fields with very little blue fruit and picking what we can to try and capture the early market.  Imagine that the first week prices being the same as the middle and the last week prices.  Why would you not wait for more blue fruit?  Of course you would, that is exactly what they do in many other blueberry-producing regions.


In that scenario one would be more concerned with yield, than with timing.  I personally could see still wanting different varieties with different maturity timing, just so that you could use your mechanical harvester over more acreage for a longer period.


When my friends ask me “how will we survive as an industry,” my answer is this: It should be a multi-level effort.  We need to continue to push for a level playing field with government officials.  We need to continue to educate the American consumer on the importance of buying #AmericanGrown produce to ensure we are a food secure nation.  Concurrently we need to transform our operations to utilize machines to reduce our labor costs going into the future.

Share this post:

Comments on "President's Letter: A Plan for the Future"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment