What was once a booming industry in Florida is now running on fumes. Mexican imports and the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) have made it almost impossible for Florida blueberry producers to compete like they used to.
“Florida went through an increase from 2000 to 2015 or so. Now, I don’t know of anybody that’s putting blueberry acreage in because they see the writing on the wall,” said David Hill, owner of Southern Hill Farms in Clermont, Florida and vice chairman of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. “What’s happening now is the smaller guys, they can’t hang. The margins aren’t there. They’re selling out. They’re either selling to developers trying to find somebody to buy their farm for cheap. Now you can get a blueberry farm cheaper than you can put one in. But I don’t see a lot of people wanting to get in the blueberry business.”
Why would any farmer want to try their hand in blueberries? Especially when the USITC decided in early February that blueberry imports were not a serious injury to the domestic market. The USITC voted 5-0. It was a devastating blow to Florida blueberry producers longing for relief.
According to University of Florida Associate Professor Zhengfei Guan, Mexican imports of blueberries were non-existent before 2009. But in 2019 they totaled a little more than 90 million pounds, compared to Florida’s approximate 24 million pounds of production.
Hill compares the state of the blueberry industry to Florida’s tomato industry which was also decimated in recent years.
“It’s the same kind of thing. You’ve got to be big, and there’s only so many people that can be big, but the smaller guys, you just can’t afford to keep losing money. Things are looking worse,” Hill said. “Mexico is ramping up. The government is subsidizing the industry. The obvious is look at the labor costs. It makes it very difficult to compete.
“You’ve got all of this infrastructure you put in and you can’t get the returns. If you sell it as a blueberry farm, you’re selling it at a huge discount. That’s the only way you’re going to entice somebody to buy it as a blueberry farm.”