2014 Berry growing season challenges and lessons for the 2015 crop season

Michigan’s small fruit growers faced tough challenges in 2014, including winter damage and spotted wing Drosophila (SWD) fruit infestations. Growers ended up with better results than early predictions and better SWD control than in previous years.

The 2014 growing season was difficult for berries. Some early estimates indicated up to 30 percent crop losses for 2014 due to winter and spring frost damage. Estimates were based on the record crop produced in 2013. According to the North American Blueberry Council crop estimates for 2014, Michigan produced 114 million pounds of blueberries in 2013, but only 91.5 million pounds in 2014. This is a little less than a 20 percent reduction from the 2014 record blueberry crop. Although the 2014 crop was smaller than the previous crop, it was more in line with the size of crops produced in previous years. For example, total blueberry production in 2011 and 2012 was 71.3 and 87 million pounds respectively. So, the results for the 2014 blueberry season were not bad after all.

One possible reason for these results were new blueberry fields entering into full production and better crop management, pruning, nutrition and irrigation. There were, however, problems in fields that sustained severe winter damage in 2014. Some varieties were able to escape substantial winter damage due to their winter hardiness or the location of the farm. However, blueberry fields with deficient nutritional or irrigation management suffered more damage than those fields that received the proper attention.

Field inspections at the end of November 2014 showed that old Jersey and Bluecrop fields with deficient management suffered a considerable amount of dieback resulting from winter damage, poor nutrition and cane diseases. The damage was more intense in fields located in southern counties than in central Michigan. Less affected at those locations were fields planted with Elliott and other winter-hardy varieties. For 2015, affected blueberry fields will need intensive pruning and a good nutritional and irrigation program to bring them back into production. However, it will take several years for them to return to full production.

On the other hand, the spotted wing Drosophila (SWD) problem is not going away anytime soon. However, we are making progress. According to packers and shippers interviewed at the end of the 2014 harvest season, crop losses due to insect problems at the peak of blueberry harvest were less than 5 percent of blueberries harvested and processed. In addition, the Michigan State University Extension end-of-season evaluation indicated that fewer growers left fields un-harvested in 2014 than in 2013. Only 17.4 percent left some portions of their field un-harvested in 2014 versus 28.5 percent in 2013. Despite growers using similar number of applications against SWD than in 2013, growers spent on average $113 per acre less in pest control in 2014. This is good news for our industry and an indication that our combined efforts between the blueberry industry and MSU Extension are making the difference in managing the SWD problem.

In 2015, MSU Extension’s goal is to continue our support to blueberry growers and small fruit industry efforts to increase their productivity while maintaining high standards regarding fruit quality, food safety and protection to workers, consumers and our environment. To achieve this goal, beginning March 26, 2015, when we will conduct our Blueberry Kick Off meeting at the MSU Trevor Nichols Research Center, the MSU Extension small fruit team is planning a series of workshops and twilight meetings for the 2015 crop season.

We will be providing timely information on upcoming meetings and workshops via email and MSU Extension fruit crop regional reports. For grower and farm workers unable to have access to electronic communication, we will make an effort to deliver information via regular mail.

From our MSU Extension small fruit team, we wish our growers a berry, berry happy 2015 crop season and we hope to see you all at our 2015 MSU Extension educational events.

Please send comments or questions to Carlos Garcia at garcias4@msu.edu or Mary Frein at frein@anr.msu.edu.

Did you find this article useful?