May 5, 2022
NIFA helps producers meet high demand for blueberries

Blueberries are the second-most produced berries in the United States, after strawberries, according to USDA’s Economic Research Services. Over the past 10 years, the supply of fresh blueberries available for American consumption has increased fivefold.

As a result, U.S. production of blueberries has increased rapidly to meet year-round consumer demand. Land-grant universities across the nation are supporting blueberry producers working to meet this increase in demand by conducting blueberry research and outreach with funding from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture fruit breeding program began in 1964 with a broad mission of improving variety options for Arkansas fruit growers of numerous fruits, including blueberries. Specific goals included releasing varieties with high quality and flavor, broad adaptation, disease resistance, a range of fruit maturity dates and reliable cropping.

To date, the program has released over 90 varieties of blackberries, peaches, blueberries, bunch grapes, nectarines, strawberries and apples. Each variety has offered unique improvements that allow commercial growers, local-market growers, and home gardeners to grow fruit to meet the needs of consumers.

At the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station at Auburn University, researchers have determined which cultivars of rabbiteye blueberries are more tolerant of high soil pH conditions. The blueberries are native to the Southeast and tolerant of the region’s heat and drought but are sensitive to the soil’s acidity. Rabbiteye blueberries grow best in a soil with acidic pH of 4.5 to 5.2, while the pH of soils in Alabama ranges from 4 to 8. Scientists also are evaluating new cultivars in collaboration with colleagues at other institutions.

Spotted-wing drosophila (SWD) is a devastating pest of blueberries, causing significant crop losses. The University of Georgia Blueberry Entomology program, in collaboration with county Extension agents, conducted research and educational activities to help blueberry farmers implement effective, season-long management programs to minimize crop losses due to this pest. These efforts have saved Georgia blueberry growers millions of dollars in crop losses due to SWD and increased their profitability by enabling them to access export markets of their choice. The impact of this work on sustainable SWD management goes beyond state boundaries and saves berry growers billions of dollars nationally.

Oregon harvests 150 million pounds of fresh blueberries each year, resulting in a farm gate value of $120 million. But hand-harvesting the fruit can be costly – about $12,000 an acre. A soft catch system, a new technology developed at Oregon State University that can be retrofitted to traditional over-the-row machines, could cut the cost per acre by $9,000.

Lori Tyler Gula, National Institute of Food and Agriculture 

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