Of the three blueberry varieties grown in the test plots at the Kearney Ag Station, Jimenez said Emerald and Jewel grafted better to the arboretum rootstock than the Star variety.

While Jewel performed best in university trials, it is the softest of the three varieties. This creates a different set of issues in mechanical harvesting and getting high-quality fruit.

The method by which harvesters handle the bottom of the blueberry plant is crucial to prevent berry loss. Related to that is the physical impact on blueberries during the mechanical harvesting process.

The softer Jewel and Emerald varieties are more susceptible to bruising than some crisper varieties, Jimenez says. Jewel and Emerald are also less attractive to consumers than the crisper versions.

Research by blueberry breeders and plant specialists will be important to find a single-trunk plant which withstands the rigors of mechanical harvesting, produces fruit with higher marketability, and provides grower profitably.

Dick Mombell, commercial sales manager with Fall Creek Farm and Nursery in Lowell, Ore., told the field day participants that fruit size, firmness, and flavor play a key part in marketability.

Jimenez said the learning curve is steep when it comes to the varieties which consumers enjoy and grow well commercially for growers.

“We don’t have firm, high-quality fruit,” Jimenez said. “Nobody does. That’s why we’re talking with breeders about how we can make this happen.”

Mombell says consumers favor crisper varieties and are more forgiving of the flavor from harder-type berries than softer varieties. Still, Jimenez said comprehensive marketing studies on what consumers truly prefer in blueberries have not yet been done.

Jimenez says another issue facing California blueberry growers is the timing of the harvest and when the fruit hits the market. Earlier varieties can fetch higher prices for growers. As the season continues, prices tend to soften as stores drop the price on fresh blueberries, he says. This is why issues, including crop inputs, are vital as growers seek ways to reduce costs and improve profit margins.

Jimenez fears the possibility that overproduction of blueberries in the coming years could decrease grower prices even further. For growers unable to improve productivity, Jimenez believes some growers could go out of business.

“That’s why this work is so important,” he said.

Jimenez stressed the importance of improving production and harvest efficiencies since blueberry growers may not always enjoy higher prices for their fruit.

“I’m looking long term. Growers need to invest in that vision,” Jimenez said.

 

tfitchette@farmpress.com

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