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State's blueberry farmers fighting weather, insects

Wet BlueberriesACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Late-spring cold snaps and untimely freezes have delayed harvests and reduced yields for Mississippi’s 2013 blueberry crop.

George Traicoff of Hernando runs a family owned and operated you-pick operation in DeSoto County. He started Nesbit Blueberry Plantation with 6,000 plants in 1984, and today his family tends 16,000 plants.

“We are running about a week later than normal and hope to be open by June 25,” he said. “We had some cold days, but no losses to freezes. We have gotten a lot of rain, maybe the best in recent years, and that helped produce larger berries.”

Traicoff said the rains did not increase disease pressure, but insects were a challenge.

Blake Layton, entomologist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the spotted wing drosophila — a type of fruit fly — is causing huge losses nationally. The invasive species arrived in the Northwest in 2008 and in Mississippi in 2010.

“The flies also attack other soft fruits like blackberries and wild dewberries. Once detected, growers need to treat plants to keep the larvae out of the fruit,” he said. “The larvae can reduce yields and berry quality.”

Layton said the economic impact includes the increased cost of pesticides and reduced yields and fruit quality.

“These flies are causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses across the United States,” he said.

Eric Stafne, Extension fruit specialist at MSU’s South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville, said the fruit flies have not been found in large numbers like last year.

“We don’t know what environmental factors impact their numbers yet, but we are watching closely,” he said.

Stafne said late frosts did quite a bit of yield damage to blueberries, especially on plants located below Interstate 20.

“Commercial growers with frost protection — wind machines, helicopters or overhead protection — were able to save most of their crop,” he said. “But those that did not have frost protection lost up to 50 percent of their potential yields.”

Stafne said the earliest varieties were hurt the most, while other varieties — including some relatively early varieties like Prince and Alapaha — did better. South Mississippi harvests started the end of May to the first of June.

“We will probably see the season compressed into a shorter span. Harvests may start slower but finish close to on time with the highest yields in the middle,” he said.

Stafne said Mississippi’s commercial farms produced about 6 million pounds last year for an $11 million crop.

“Last year, prices ran more than $2 per pound fresh market, and processed prices were closer to $1.30,” he said.

Mississippi has about 2,500 acres of blueberries, mostly located along Interstate 20 and south.


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