During a May 20-21 southeastern Georgia tour, participants from the East Coast saw how blueberries are grown, packed, processed and distributed.
The tour, hosted by the Folsom, Calif.-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, included facilities in the Alma area operated by the Grand Junction, Mich.-based MBG Marketing, a co-owner of Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Farms LLC.
MBG’s growers ship about 40% of Georgia’s fresh and processed blueberries, said Derrin Wheeler, director of MBG’s Sunbelt business unit.
To counter cuts to state university breeding programs, MBG began its own variety development program and in 2013, that breeding effort released seven varieties for southeastern production, he said.
Participants toured a 50,000-square-foot packinghouse and a 30,000-square-foot distribution center.
The packing operation is expected to handle up to 20 million pounds of fresh conventional and organic blueberries and blackberries while the distribution center supplies MBG’s 26 packing facilities.
Georgia produced 68 million pounds of fruit last year, but this year’s crop is expected to exceed 80 million pounds. Georgia is often the country’s second-leading producer, said Lorrie Merker, MBG’s vice president of grower relations.
“Georgia growers, they really like to go fresh,” she said. “The state has had a couple of bad years when so many (berries) went processed.”
Participants viewed 110 acres of new plantings by John Bennett, an MBG board member and owner of JAB-J Corp. which does business as Alma Sunbelt Blueberries.
Bennett said proper marketing can help all growers.
“If we have good marketers, there’s room for increasing consumption,” he said. “Poor planning by fly-by-night marketers hurts the deal. If we don’t plan it, the deal can go nuts.”
At another field, participants were told how food safety remains a critical concern.
“These kinds of tours are extremely important as people are wanting to see where the fruit comes from outside of the cups of blueberries they see in the metropolitan areas,” said Lane Wade, owner of Alma Berry Farms.
Such tours are critical for helping advance blueberry, knowledge, Merker said.
“People are more health savvy and we want to showcase the source of where the fruit comes from,” she said. “This is a great way to show the reality of what goes on and to spread word about the industry.”
Photo credit: Doug OhlemeierThe Packer