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Cold weather gives blueberry crop a boost

By JACK WEATHERLY
jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com

The recent spate of subfreezing weather isn’t all bad. Just ask blueberry farmers.

An unusually warm winter last year cut into the state’s fruit crops, including blueberries, the state’s largest.

But thus far this winter, subfreezing weather bodes well for fruit crops in Mississippi, according to Dr. Eric Thomas Staphne, an associate professor at the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

That’s because fruit needs a certain amount of “chilling hours,” when temperatures are between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, to support its dormancy stage before blooming and producing.

“We’ve probably accumulated enough for some of the lower chilling varieties,” Staphne said in an interview.

“We’re hoping that we’ll have some more of that cooling weather in the next month,” Staphne said.

Blueberries, for example, need 400 to 600 chilling hours, he said.

The average number of chilling hourse ranged from 400 to 600 hours around Hattiesburg, 600 to 800 in the Jackson area and 1,000 to 1,200 hours in northern Mississippi.

Due to the lack of chilling hours – and heavy rains – last year, the blueberry crop is totaled about 3.6 million pounds, Staphne said, which he said was off 30 to 40 percent, compared with 2016. Less acreage contributed to that drop, he said.

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) said that its survey of farmers shows that 7.4 million pounds were produced commercially in Mississippi in 2016, a figure that Staphne thinks is inflated.

In the past decade, the production ranged from a high of 10.5 million pounds in 2011 to 4 million pounds in 2008, according to the NASS.

Staphne said climate data show a warming trend over the past 30 to 40 years.

The consensus of the scientific community is that there has been a worldwide warming since the mid-20th century primarily because of human activity that produces greenhouse gases.

Staphne said, “Whether you believe it or not, it’s still warming,” adding that “I think it’s probably the height of fallacy to think that we couldn’t affect any environment in which we live . . . and that includes the climate.”

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