This time of year, we’re used to seeing Florida-grown blueberries show up at the local grocery store. But things weren’t always this way.
The Florida blueberry industry got its start in the 1970s when the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences developed the first Southern Highbush blueberry plants grown commercially in the Sunshine State.
Now, the Florida blueberry industry is worth an estimated $82 million, according to the most recent statistics from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Andy Frederick started growing blueberries in 1999 and now operates farms in Silver Springs and Arcadia.
“I have gone through many generations of advancements in blueberry variety development with UF plants,” Frederick said. “Each generation has worked to bring larger fruit, earlier ripening, healthier bushes and larger yields. To date, I have areas that have been replanted three to four times in order to leverage the advances that UF has developed with the new cultivars, and I planted two additional farms. UF varieties have helped me with better, earlier and more productive bushes to compete in an international environment and with our northern friends in Georgia.”
The goal of the UF/IFAS Blueberry Breeding Program is to develop blueberry varieties that thrive in Florida’s climate and soils, while resisting disease and producing the best quality berry. Florida blueberries are available earlier than berries grown in other regions, letting growers command higher prices during the early season window.
All these traits give Florida blueberry growers an economic edge, said Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. To protect Florida farmers and feed research and discovery, UF patents and licenses Florida blueberry varieties, he said.
“If we don’t license our blueberry varieties, there is no limit to who can sell or grow them,” Payne said. “The license lets us limit and control who uses them and prevents international competitors from marketing UF/IFAS-developed varieties to the U.S. during the Florida blueberry season. Licensing revenue then gets reinvested into the breeding program that created the plants in the first place.”
Florida farmers are able to start using UF/IFAS varieties a few years before international growers do, Payne added.
And the numbers show that these policies work, Payne said, citing blueberry imports from Mexico.
“UF/IFAS varieties produced in Mexico make up only 1.63 percent of the total volume of blueberries imported into the U.S. from Mexico,” he said.
Compared to other land grant universities’ licensing practices, UF’s policy of reinvesting licensing revenues into plant breeding research is one of the most aggressive in the nation, according to a statement from the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.
“We’re proud to work in partnership with the Florida Blueberry Growers Association to make sure licensing protects the Florida blueberry industry and ensures future innovation,” Payne said, noting that UF/IFAS breeders work closely with growers on developing traits that fit growers’ needs.
Ken Patterson, who has been growing blueberries in Florida since 1990, has farms in Island Grove and Arcadia. He agrees that licensing helps his businesses.
“Patents and licensing have enabled Florida to be competitive in the global market and make the industry sustainable. Without those protections, Florida varieties would have escaped into the world,” Patterson said. “UF has the number one Southern Highbush blueberry breeding program in the world, and the Florida industry wouldn’t be possible without it.”
Licensing revenues support the many components of the UF/IFAS Blueberry Breeding Program, from purchasing new lab equipment, to hiring breeders and Extension faculty who advise growers and travel to their farms.
“Recently Patricio Muñoz and Doug Phillips have been added to the UF/IFAS blueberry breeding side and field Extension, and have been awesome in their process to evaluate varieties from an economic perspective, and being proactive on chemical requirements and variety selection,” Frederick said.
This partnership with growers allows UF/IFAS breeders to test new varieties on farms throughout the state, Patterson added.
“Florida’s climate varies region to region, so farm trials help growers make sure they are planting the right variety for their location,” he said.