Holding Out Hope for a Good 2024 Season

I started this letter listing a bunch of threats facing Florida Blueberry growers in 2024.  As I penciled my list, I began to realize I was being too negative and had no business inviting my fellow growers to a pointless pity party. After all, as I write, the excitement of a new year is right around the corner. Now is the time to look on the bright side, and I submit the glass is half full and we have many reasons to anticipate a prosperous season. I’m going on the record that I’m optimistic about the 2024 Florida blueberry crop and its potential for a big improvement over the past few years. 

First, let me tick off a few notable negatives most of you are familiar with. 

1) Many of the higher costs to grow the 2023 crop are embedded in the 2024 crop with some more (though moderate) increases.  

2) H2A wage rate mandates look to be up about 44 cents per hour, with H2A supervisors jumping almost $10 to $26.58/hr. Domestic ag labor is catching this wave of government-mandated pay increases with substantial increases of their own. 

3) Regulation continues to add more reporting burdens. 

4) Much of Florida’s blueberry acreage has experienced significant drought stress, even in our “rainy season.” 

5) Chilli thrips continued to challenge growers all growing season. 

6) Specialty crop imports continue to increase in volume with no long-term relief from our federal government.  

7) Georgia could have another massive Southern Highbush crop from their aggressive move to expand their competing acreage.  

I am sure you, too, can add a few more threats of your own without any help from me.

On the other hand…

We have plenty of potent reasons to more than offset the enemies of a good crop year. The most important is the expertise and dedication of our Florida blueberry growers. Every day we are solving problems and coming up with improvements to make our farms better and our blueberry crops second to none.

The biggest hurt to the 2023 crop was Hurricane Ian. Although some growers are still suffering the aftermath of this devastating storm, Florida farms are recovering, and we fortunately came through the fall without another disaster. We could easily recapture a few million pounds of fruit from this circumstance alone.

Inflation is moderating.  We can much better adjust to 3-4% cost increases than the double-digit increases we dealt with in the 2022-2023 growing season. Ag chemicals have stabilized and a few are even lower. Fertilizer prices have moderated, and the oil needed for growing, packing and shipping our crop is costing less. 

The U.S. and the world are consuming more and more blueberries. People are really waking up to the fact that blueberries truly are a super fruit, combining great taste and texture with off-the-charts health benefits. If our fruit is high quality, consumers will buy and buy again at a fair price that keeps domestic blueberries in production. We can continue as a more reliable and secure source of nutritious fruit, providing a fair return for the investment and hard work of our growers. 

The tenuous nature of the supply chain for foreign-grown blueberries came to light this year as Peru and others suffered from major crop shortages, political unrest, and extended delivery times. I hope the damage done to their brand does not spill over into our spring market. Their fruit quality suffered, and what little fruit they shipped sent prices soaring. Grocers will need our hyper-fresh fruit this spring. Indications are that South American fruit will continue to have production problems again this year. We will see.

One final encouraging point is the improvement in chill hours in December. For me, today is December 14.  By this time last year, I had accumulated zero hours. I already have 30 hours of chill and lots of partial chill. This may not sound like much for some of you growers, but it is a good start, especially for our deciduous crops. There is nothing like good chill to make for a bigger, better crop come harvest time. Thus far this growing season, I know a lot of growers have nurtured a nice-looking crop full of buds. With a little help from weather this winter, the 2024 crop should see quite a jump over 2023.

So, growers, keep caretaking your crop every day till harvest, but do take one day, March 7, to join your fellow colleagues in Citra at the IFAS Plant Science Research Station. We’ve included a special treat — the chance to see the new UF varieties at one of Florida’s outstanding Blueberry farms, Wild Goose Farms in Umatilla. You won’t want to miss it.

Leonard Park, President FFBA

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