Wal-Mart deal opens markets for blueberry growers

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Published: July 19,2004

In 1968, Hurricane Camille devastated the tung oil trees of southern Mississippi to the extent that many growers gave up on the trees and began to look for other crops. Some of them settled on blueberries, and now half a dozen counties in South Mississippi are helping to make blueberries one of the fastest-growing crops in the state and the town of Collins (20 miles west of Laurel in Covington County) a major center for the packing and distribution of blueberries.

A few weeks ago, Wal-Mart announced that it would sell Mississippi blueberries in 142 Supercenters in the South and, in late June, Dr. Lester Spell, the state’s commissioner of agriculture and commerce, announced that 10,000 cases of 12 one-pint cups from the Fresh Harvest processing facility in Collins had been shipped to the Wal-Mart stores.

Wal-Mart officials said that they have been selling cantaloupes from Tennessee and strawberries from Louisiana and have been looking for a source for blueberries. They found their blueberries in the steadily expanding growth in Mississippi, where blueberries had a farm gate value of $5 million in 2003 and a statewide economic impact of $21.5 million, according to the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

Spell said that an acre can yield as many as 12,000 pounds of blueberries. The berries are currently bringing growers up to $1 a pound.

There was already a blueberry processing facility in Collins when, in 2003, Covington County received an $800,000 grant through the Mississippi Land, Water and Timber Resources Board. Growers in the area and the county board of supervisors came up with $200,000 so that the $1-million facility could be renovated and expanded.

Cooling off

The 5,000-square-foot facility operates from mid-May through mid-July, during the height of the blueberry season. There, 50 to 60 workers grade, box and ship the berries not only to Wal-Mart but to Farmers’ Market in New Orleans and such supermarket chains as Winn-Dixie, Loboaw and Costco.

The blueberries are also frozen and made into juice.
The biggest change in the expansion of the Collins facility is the addition of a cooling capacity, which is crucial with blueberries.

Wal-Mart regional buyer Doug Reynolds said that the chain had a difficult time finding a processor “who could pull field heat out of blueberries before they dehydrate.”
The berries can reach 90 degrees in the field, and they have to be cooled quickly at a processing plant before being shipped to stores. The newly-installed cooling facility brings the packed blueberries down to 34 degrees in 90 minutes.

Reynolds believes that the Collins facility “will definitely complement both the growers as well as the state in producing a top quality product the consumer will enjoy.”
George Ellis, director/proprietor of Fresh Harvest International, said that blueberry production in Mississippi, in one year, is up from 600,000 pounds to three million pounds. He predicted that, within four years, production will be up 10 million pounds.

Ellis indicated that the varieties grown in Mississippi are equal in quality to blueberries grown anywhere in the United States.

“Mississippi will be one of the major growing regions in coming years,” he added.

The state now has some 2,000 acres of blueberries and ranks seventh in the country.

Ellis emphasized that Fresh Harvest means far more to the growers, and the state, then just a processing facility.

“We have a vertical relationship with growers. Not only cash flow for the harvest, but we provide packaging material and are involved in the process from the development of the farm through the entire process.”

Ellis added that Fresh Harvest also supplies growers with expertise and technology.

“And Fresh Harvest is interested in economic development not only in Covington County but in the entire state.”

Fresh Harvest had its beginning in 1986, growing blackberries in Guatemala. Known primarily for its blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, Fresh Harvest also provides dozens of other foods, from baby French beans to green and white asparagus.

If a caller reaches the voice mail of Dean Daughdrill at her Collins home, the message will tell him to, “Have a happy blueberry year.”

Daughdrill grows blueberries and was one of the people who worked longest and hardest to secure the expansion of the Collins facility. She and her husband first planted 20 acres of blueberries as a retirement project and, when he died, she worked dawn to dusk, learning about fertilizer, plowing the fields and operating the enormous picking machine.
She called the processing facility a “dream come true” for blueberry farmers, and said that blueberries are coming in from one end of the state to the other.

“There are a lot of growers in the Collins area,” Daughdrill said.

She indicated that blueberries can give people a second income, or, if they have enough acres, they can earn a living at it.

“The average grower can make between $2,500 and $5,000 per acre, depending on the condition of the crop.
According to Henry Turner of Vancleave (in Jackson County), “The blueberry industry is on a roll.”

Turner, in his mid 70s, works 10 acres of berries and sends them to Collins by refrigerated truck.

Though blueberries grow all over Mississippi, some 300 growers in Simpson, Covington, Wayne, Forrest, Pearl River and Lamar counties produce the most berries. Approximately 75% of the state’s blueberries are processed at Fresh Harvest in Collins. Most of the rest are sold at roadside stands and to local outlets.

Spell said that the demand for blueberries has increased steadily over the past few years as their health value has been realized. He added that there’s a strong demand in Japan.

“Blueberries are good for your eyes and heart,” according to John Braswell of the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “And they’re high in antioxidents.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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