By Tom Oder
Have you noticed an improved quality in blueberries in your grocery store produce section in recent years? Larger berries? Better taste? Longer shelf life?
If so, it’s not your imagination. The differences are real, whether you have been buying blueberries in the spring and summer that have been grown in the United States or ones in the winter that have been shipped in from South America. According to Scott NeSmith, the head blueberry breeder at the University of Georgia’s Griffin Campus, consumers can expect more of the same improvements when this year’s U.S.-grown berries start landing on store shelves in April.
The size increase, taste enhancements and other improvements in many blueberries sold in the U.S. — whether grown domestically or abroad — are due in large part to work by food scientists, entomologists and horticulturalists at the University of Georgia. Beginning in the 1980s, their efforts to transform the blueberry industry have established the nation’s oldest state-chartered university as a global leader in blueberry research.
“We really have an exceptionally strong global blueberry program now,” NeSmith said.
The program is so strong, in fact, that it has played a key role in helping blueberries become the Peach State’s largest fruit crop. Georgia farmers grow seven times more blueberries than peaches, and in 2014 the state became the country’s No. 1 producer of the antioxidant-rich berries.
Blueberries didn’t surpass peaches in Georgia overnight. The change occurred gradually, beginning about 1990 when farmers in the southeastern corner of the state began decreasing tobacco production. Blueberries turned out to be a great fit to replace acreage once devoted to tobacco.
The impact of the UGA blueberry research reaches consumers far beyond Georgia. Farmers throughout the Southeast grow blueberry varieties created at UGA and developed in UGA’s trial gardens.
In Georgia, these varieties include Rebel, Suziblue, Camellia, Georgia Dawn, Alapaha, Vernon, Ochlockonee and Titan. In North Carolina, Suziblue, Rebel, Vernon, Titan and Camellia are popular. In Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, blueberry farmers are growing Alapaha, Vernon, Ochlockonee and Titan. In Florida, it’s Rebel and Suziblue.
Farmers on the West Coast also grow UGA’s varieties, including Suziblue and Rebel in California and Ochlockonee and Titan in Oregon.
UGA’s varieties do not do well in cold climates. For that reason, the upper Midwest and the Northeast are about the only regions where UGA’s varieties are not grown in the U.S., NeSmith said.
Varieties from UGA’s blueberry program are now grown around the world in countries including Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Japan and South Korea. Chile is the primary source for blueberries available in the winter throughout the United States, NeSmith said.
Although many blueberry varieties are grown in Chile, some UGA varieties have become popular there in the past four or five years, NeSmith said. The dominant UGA variety grown in Chile is Ochlockonee, which typically ripens from mid-January through February, depending on the part of the country where it is grown. The UGA varieties Suziblue and Camellia (at right) are also becoming popular on some Chilean farms. These ripen in late November through December, again depending on the growing location.
A product of traditional breeding
UGA does all of it’s blueberry breeding through traditional means, NeSmith said. And by traditional breeding, Ne Smith said he means transferring pollen from one plant to another by hand.
“There is no insertion of DNA or manipulation of DNA of any kind,” NeSmith said. “We absolutely do not use GMOs in our blueberry breeding.”
"We breed for size and flavor," he said, adding that flavor is not lost with the development of bushes that produce larger berries than previously had been available. “It takes 10 to 12 years to make a new variety through traditional breeding.”
The reason that breeding is done by hand is because the hand pollination method allows breeders to know exactly what varieties they are working with, he said. By contrast, when plants are pollinated by bees in the field, breeders can’t be sure which variety of blueberry supplied the pollen that the bee transferred to the host plant.
Where to find them
Most of the university’s licensees are commercial and wholesale nurseries rather than retail garden centers. “But, we are always trying to reach smaller consumers as well,” NeSmith said.
If you would like to obtain any of the UGA varieties for home use, NeSmith suggests you contact wholesalers in your area to see if they have a retail outlet near you. Some of the nurseries to check with are Cornelius Farms in Manor, Georgia; Alma Nursery in Alma, Georgia; Bottoms Nursery in Concord, Georgia; Oregon Blueberry Farms in Oregon; and Fall Creek Farms in Oregon.
If you can’t find UGA varieties you can grow at home, continue to look for improved traits at your grocery. Just be aware, NeSmith cautioned, that radical differences don’t happen quickly.
“Our progress is gradual, not sudden,” he said.
Still, he added, consumers will continue to see improved quality from blueberries that have their origin in Georgia, where many farmers have decided that a case of the blues is not a bad thing at all.