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United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture
The blueberry is delicious as a fresh fruit snack or in a variety of foods such as blueberry pies or muffins. Although most large-scale commercial blueberry operations are in either Michigan or New Jersey, highbush blueberries can be cultivated throughout much of the United States-with careful site selection and proper cultural practices.
Highbush blueberries fit nicely into small-scale farming. In the Midwest, by selecting early or late varieties, harvesting can begin in early June and last into August. Local marketing by pick-your-own (PYO) customers, at farmer's markets, or ready-picked sales to nearby stores is particularly feasible for small-scale operators in close proximity to metropolitan areas. Blueberry sales can supplement income from primary sources.
Growing highbush blueberries is labor and management intensive. Most work can be performed by hand, but specialized equipment may be beneficial. Blueberry production requires a substantial investment In time and money. Plantings require 2 to 3 years to establish and are not harvested until the third or fourth growing season. Many things can go wrong during the first years and a knowledge of blueberry biology and pest management is essential.
Without good cultural practices-including insect, weed, and disease control-plantings may be doomed even before first harvest. Ideas on pest control practices should be available through the local Cooperative Extension Service (CES).
Per-acre returns can be high. A mature planting can gross $5,000 per acre and return $3,000 or more with correct marketing, management, and growing.
Site and Pre-Planting Considerations
Blueberries should ideally be planted on a gently rolling slope to provide good air and water drainage. Good air drainage reduces likelihood of blossom damage from late spring frosts. blueberry roots are very sensitive to standing water so they need good surface and internal water drainage. Although a sandy soil is best for drainage, heavier soils may be used if internal drainage is adequate. This may require either planting on ridges or placing tiles to improve drainage.
In choosing a site, give consideration to a water source for irrigation. If the crop is to be harvested by PYO customers, the location should be easily accessible to parking nearby.
Blueberry plants are very sensitive to soil pH and require acidic soils for success. Optimum soil pH is 4.8 to 5.2, although levels as high as 5.5 are acceptable. The soil pH can gradually be reduced through use of acid-reaction fertilizers. Soils with pH levels of 5.5 to 6.0 can be used if the soil pH is lowered using an agricultural sulfur 1 year or more prior to planting. The sulfur required to lower soil pH varies with soil type. It may be economically unfeasible to adjust the pH of some soils. Therefore, prior to planting, another soil pH test should be conducted to learn whether the soil pH has attained a satisfactory acidic reaction.
Planning should begin at least 1 year prior to planting blueberries. This time schedule allows for adjusting soil pH (if needed), tiling, ditching, and digging a pond or drilling a well. During this time, it may be possible to control perennial weeds which may be difficult to stop with herbicides registered for use on blueberries after planting. A green manure crop of rye or wheat may be grown and then turned under to improve soil tilth. Any cultivated crop grown during this preparatory year may help reduce insect and weed problems. If herbicides are used to manage weeds during the preparation of the site for blueberry production, then be aware of the time limits for degradation of the herbicide residues in the soil.
Cultivars (cultivated varieties) are the keys to success and are selected a year ahead. They should be booked with a reputable nursery. The CES (Extension agent) should have information on which cultivars are best adapted for local use. A potential grower may also learn about cultivar selection by visiting other growers and from nursery professionals. Most nurseries offer rooted cuttings, 2-year-old bare-rooted fieldgrown plants, and 2-year-old containerized nursery stock.
Many small-scale operations buy containerized planting stock because of the increased survival and earlier production they may offer. If containerized stock is used, it is wise to pick up the plants at the nursery and eliminate shipping expenses.
Blueberries benefit from cross pollination so growers should alternate cultivars with similar flowering seasons in alternating blocks of 2 to 4 rows. Rows ideally run north to south to allow for uniform sunlight. However, any orientation is acceptable. Blueberries are normally grown with wide row spacings, with the area between rows seeded down to a perennial cover crop such as Kentucky bluegrass or fescue.
Row spacings of 10 to 14 or more feet ensure that mowing and spraying can be done by tractor, although narrower spacings will allow for equipment use during the first few years of planting. However, without at Ieast 10-foot spacing the plants will grow large enough that a tractor can no longer be driven between the rows. Spacing within the row is commonly 4' or 6'.
Planting for PYO operations should allow for customer convenience and handling. Rows should be interrupted with cross-walks or drive alleys about every 200'. It is also helpful to arrange cultivars with similar ripening seasons together so that harvest can progress in an orderly fashion.
Planting of containerized nursery stock may occur in either early fall or early spring. Bar root nursery stock is normally planted in the spring. Fall planting should occur between late September and early October. The roots of these fall-set plants will continue to grow until soil temperatures fall below 45 F. Spring plantings are often delayed because of wet weather. Fall-set plants are already in place and have the advantage of early spring growth, which is often missed in spring plantings due to wet weather delays. Fall-pIanted blueberries must be mulched prior to winter in areas in danger of frost heaving. Spring planting should begin as soon as the danger of severe frost has passed.
Blueberries are shallow rooted so the planting hole needs to be wide. Holes may be dug by hand or with an oversized tractor-mounted posthole digger. Some growers prefer to plant in a plow furrow. After the hole is dug, the plants should be planted as deep as they were in the nursery. Usually about 1 pound of moist acidic sphagnum peat moss is used per plant during planting. It is mixed with soil during backfilling of the planting hole should be thoroughly wet prior to using. Failure to wet the sphagnum peat moss can result in it drawing moisture out of the soil and causing the newly set plants to dry out.
After planting, bare-root plants should have 1/3 to 2/3 of the branches removed. This allows the plant root system to be in balance with the shoot system and increases survival by reducing transpirational demand. Plan containerized stock reduces the need for pruning branches at planting time. Flower buds should be rubbed off to ensure that energy is channeled into vegetative growth.
Mulch and Irrigation
In most regions where highbush blueberries can be grown, both mulch and irrigation are essential for successful production. Mulch goes on newly set plants soon after planting and irrigation should be ready before newly set plants dry out. Many materials are suitable for mulching blueberries, but sawdust Is most common. Mulch keeps soil temperatures cooler during summer, reduces weeds, and maintains soil moisture more uniformly.
Although mulch helps save moisture, it does not eliminate the need for irrigation. Blueberries are very sensitive to drought and irrigation is essential in most areas. Trickle irrigation offers the advantage of being more efficient, but it does not allow for the frost protection that overhead systems can provide. In areas where late spring frosts are of little concern, trickle irrigation is normally chosen because of its increased efficiency. Irrigation then occurs without interrupting spraying or harvesting.
Bird depredation can be the biggest problem of small-scale producers, sometimes causing crop losses of over 70 percent. Scare devices and exclusion by netting are commonly used to reduce losses.
Insect and disease problems may be small in areas of few blueberry plantings. The CES can provide information on weed, insect, and disease control.
Marketing the Crop
The principal small-scale market may be consumers in local communities. A high percentage of blueberries are direct marketed locally. The potential trade area for blueberries tends to be larger than for strawberries. Blueberries also offer other advantages over strawberries for PYO operations. Blueberries require little stooping. Customers find them easy to freeze, requiring little preparation other than washing, and easy to use. PYO surveys have found a trend towards an increased average age of PYO consumers.
Sales of ready-picked blueberries at the farm or local markets bring higher prices to producers from consumers who desire farm fresh produce, but do not wish to PYO.
The blueberry crop is usually sold within 60 days, depending upon weather and varieties. Weekends are usually the busiest. Coordinating sales advertising and promotion with peak harvests challenges even experienced growers.
PYO growers must be market oriented, plan far ahead, seek alternative market possibilities, train employees, and develop successful advertising, especially a good farm logo. Before starting any small-scale enterprise, a farmer should study the potential markets, trade areas, competitors, and the advertising media.
About 450 PYO customers can harvest 1 acre of blueberries (6,000 pounds). PYO blueberries are usually sold by weight in pounds and/or ounces. The scales used for sales should be inspected by the Weights and Measures Division of the State Department of Agriculture or Commerce.
A direct market business requires time to develop. Blueberries lend themselves nicely to market development because they require 6 years or more to reach maximum yields. Careful attention to a business image, including the logo, quality of fruit, and how fields are maintained, is essential. A direct marketer should exceed customer expectations. Merely raising high-quality blueberries is not enough.
Often customers enjoy the recreational aspect of a trip to a country farm as much as obtaining high-quality produce at reasonable prices. They want well marked roads; adequate parking; and friendly courteous service.
Since accidents do occur, growers must have adequate insurance. A regular farm insurance policy may not cover liability to PYO customers.
For More Information
State university and county CES personnel can often provide information from local Ag Experiment Stations which is geared to local production and marketing. For example, the University of Illinois conducts an annual "Small Fruit School" and publishes a Proceedings, which includes information on blueberries as well as other small fruit. For information write to J.D. Kindhart, University of Illinois, Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, R-1, Box 256, Simpson, IL 62985. Similar extension schools are held in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and other States.
Other Information Sources
Highbush Blueberry Production Guide (200 pp, color), Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service, 152 Riley-Robb Hall, Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.
Small Fruit Crop Management (608 pp), Prentice Hall. Mail Order Billing Dept.,200 Old Tappan Road, Old Tappan, NJ 07657.
Growing Blueberries in Missouri (26 pp), State Fruit Experiment Station of SMSU, Mountain Grove, MO 65711.
Hints on Growing Blueberries (8 pp), Bulletin Office, 10B Agriculture Hall, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Ml 42824.
Fruit and Vegetable Clip Art for Direct Marketers University of Illinois, Department of Horticulture, Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, Simpson, IL 62985.
Small Fruit Production and Pest Management Guide (111 pp), Publications Distribution Center, 112 Agricultural Administration Building, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802.
The Highbush Blueberry and Its Management (270 pp), The Haworth Press Inc., 10 Alice
Street,, Binghamton, NY 13904.
By J.D. Kindhart, University of Illinois, and George B. Holcomb, Office of Communication, U.S, Department of Agriculture (USDA), for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (OSSA); Howard W. "Bud" Kerr Jr., Program Director, Ag Box 2244, Washington, DC 20250-2244. Telephone: 202-401-1805; Fax: 202-401-1804.
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Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
All uses of fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides must be registered by appropriate State and/or Federal agencies before they can be recommended.
CAUTION: Fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides can be injurious to humans, domestic animals, desirable plants, and fish or other wildlife if they are not handled or applied properly. Use all products selectively and carefully. Follow recommended practices for the disposal of surplus products and their containers.
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