Georgia blueberries

Blueberries. Georgia Department of Agriculture/Provided

Blueberries are surging in the Southeast, but fruit fans might not know it from the last few seasons.

Like other farmers in the region, blueberry growers have had to contend with late freezes, snowfall and destructive storms. Compared to previous years, “2019 (has) turned out to be pretty good crop-wise,” despite the current drought, Mike Bruorton of Superior Berries Co. in Fargo, Ga., says.

With the harvest now under way, Bruorton’s primary concern is getting a decent price for his berries. According to Bruorton, imports from countries with lower labor costs and less stringent food safety regulations have undercut the market value of blueberries bound for smoothies and acai bowls.

“Demand is increasing every year, but the pricing has not been there simply because Mexico is able to dump that fruit into our market,” he says.

A few decades back, not many Southern farmers paid close attention to the blueberry market. But as Georgia’s tobacco growers looked around for something else to grow, they discovered their sandy soils were ideal for blueberries. In 2014, the University of Georgia announced its home state led the nation in blueberry production.

Between the late-1980s and the year in which Georgia surpassed traditional blueberry powerhouse Michigan (“Y’all were the mack daddy,” Bruorton said upon learning this reporter hails from there), blueberry acreage across the state grew from 3,500 to 20,000 acres.

Leslie Tumbleston, who with her husband owns Champney’s Blueberry Farm in Ravenel, says South Carolina has also made strides in blueberry production since they planted their first trees in 1995.

“We had to go to Georgia to get all of our information,” Tumbleston recalls. “But over the past five or six years, we now have a great extension agent.”

Although Tumbleston doesn’t anticipate having enough berries this year to sell to corporate clients, Champney’s operates a popular u-pick program, with the fields kept open from dawn to dusk on certain days.

“Our berries aren’t as large as they usually are, and they could be sweeter,” Tumbleston says. “But we have decided we are blueberry snobs because we have maybe a higher expectation than others.”

The vast majority of Tumbleston’s u-pick customers are parents with children, many of whom leave the farm with no more than one pound of berries. But Tumbleston says she’s also visited by blueberry believers who want to make sure they’ll have a sufficient local stash to see them through the winter, sometimes at a consumption rate of half a cup of blueberries a day.

Tumbleston says she isn’t sure how long the 2019 season will last.

“God is in charge, not me: Everything depends on weather,” she said, adding she and Bruorton both hope Southerners will buy their blueberries while they can.

“I go to church in this community, I pay my taxes in this community and the only money that will leave my farm will go to Clemson,” says Tumbleston, whose third child starts school in the fall.

For more information about picking berries at Champney's, call 843-763-6564 or go to facebook.com/champneysblueberries.

Blue Pearl Farms in McClellanville is also gearing up for its ninth annual Lowcountry Blueberry Festival. The farm, from noon to 6 p.m. June 30, will host bands and a blueberry toss. To learn more, go to bluepearlfarms.com.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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