After suffering from late freezes during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Georgia blueberry growers are focusing on mending bush health. Brandon Wade, grower and president of the Georgia Blueberry Growers Association (GBGA), says growers have had a tough couple seasons due to the freezes.
Disease pressure has been prevalent as well. According to Wade, the freezes opened the window for fungal diseases to enter. Georgia growers have also seen large amounts of rain, providing a great environment for fungal diseases to spread. “There were two full weeks of rain during the highbush season and two full weeks of rain during the rabbiteye season,” he explains.
Wade is doing a couple of things to improve bush health in his production system. One is changing the way water flows out of his fields. “We don’t need standing water because that’s just giving way to a new disease,” he says.
According to Wade, another important practice is trying not to over spray. “You don’t want to spray fungicides and pesticides if you don’t have to,” he says.
Wade is also doing a lot of routine pruning. Correct pruning and sanitization of the bushes can help keep diseases from spreading.
Overall, Wade says he is seeing some bush health come back. “We’re looking forward to a good season … as long as we don’t see another freeze,” he says.
LACK OF LABOR
Aside from bush health, the other big issue Wade is seeing in his industry is labor. “We need people in the field to pick our blueberries and package them,” he says.
As in many agricultural industries, finding an adequate workforce continues to be a struggle for Georgia blueberry growers. For the blueberry industry, labor needs go beyond picking and packing. Routine production practices, like pruning, have proven to be very labor intensive. “You’re talking about people who are knowledgeable enough to determine what pieces of the tree need to come off. Then, they need to come off and be sanitized correctly to prevent that spread of disease,” Wade explains.
As an association, the GBGA has cosigned multiple letters to legislators explaining the need for an adequate labor force. “We want to make sure that our representatives recognize what a need good labor is for the blueberry industry,” he says.
Labor has become even more of a need since the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the old NAFTA, southeastern blueberry growers suffered greatly from competition from Mexico. Growers were hoping that the new agreement would include provisions to protect them from unfair trade practices. The new NAFTA, otherwise known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, did not include those provisions.
Looking into the next year, Wade is expecting to stay the course and continue to advocate for the Georgia blueberry industry and its growers. “We’re all farmers. We (the GBGA) really want to spread that message so we can keep our ground and keep everything we’ve worked to build,” he concludes.
This article was featured in the blueberry spotlight in the January issue of VSCNews magazine. To receive future issues of the magazine, click here.
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