Why Not Blueberries?

One of our ongoing projects at Petty Ranch has been identifying crops that might be a profitable addition to our business. Markets change, and Ventura County growers have always adapted to that change. Markets aside, crop rotation and diversification are an important part of our long range plan. One crop that we have considered and passed on (at least for now) are blueberries.

When we first looked at blueberries about ten years ago, they seemed like a perfect fit. Blueberries reach maturity faster than the lemon and avocado trees we are used to, so we would have ground out of production for less time. Blueberries grown in Ventura County held out the promise of being ready to harvest before nearly all other Northern Hemisphere blueberries. That sort of market window can drive prices very high. Better yet, a strong cash crop in the Spring would do wonders for our cashflow, coming in before our Summertime avocado income and Fall/Winter lemon returns. Everything sounded like a slam dunk.

To evaluate this potential crop, we went to work. There was a good deal of information available on the internet for Southern “high-bush” varieties that helped us learn more about the job of growing berries, even though many of these papers were from Florida or Georgia. University of California production studies were hugely useful, even though they raised the first red flag… a lack of reliable yield estimates for blueberries in our area.

We also had the opportunity to discuss blueberries with a few of the pioneering growers in our region. I found them remarkably open and candid, which I certainly appreciated. Touring the demonstration planting of different varietals at the Hansen Agricultural Center was also an eye opener. After a few talks with one of the nurseries in Oregon we put ourselves on the waiting list for delivery a couple of years out.

The final piece of our exploration was a small planting in the family garden. Mom’s an excellent gardener… her experience with blueberries would tell us a lot.

And what it told us was that blueberries struggle in our soil, even with Mom. Blueberries like an acid soil, but Ventura County soils have a higher pH. This can be mitigated, but it is no easy task. As we continued to observe other early plantings in our area, we saw they were fighting the same thing. So as our deadline to confirm the order approached we had to take stock of what we knew. Here’s what we found:

Highly uncertain returns – yield data was still scarce, but worse yet, blueberries seemed to be ripening later than expected, missing the best part of the market.

A Knowledge shortfall – Some very smart people were working on a solution to the pH problem, but one thing was certain… we didn’t know how to fix it. Indeed, it wasn’t clear if it was fixable. We had a lot to learn.

Capital needs – While blueberry bushes grow to productive size faster than the trees we were accustomed to, they needed a lot more up-front capital. We were fortunate to have access to the capital we would have needed, but increased capital needs (by way of debt)  always add risk.

Infrastructure- As we looked more closely at what we would need to support blueberries, we realized that we would have larger hurdles than we originally thought. Blueberries have notably different water needs from citrus and avocados. If we planted only a small area, we would have to re-engineer our whole water system at a cost of $50 to $75,000. We could escape that by planting a whole block, but that would mean committing a minimum of 15 acres (out of 52), which would demand further capital commitments. There was no way we could “dip a toe” in the blueberry pond.

Labor – Blueberries are more labor intensive than our existing crops. We would almost certainly need at least one more fulltime person to develop expertise in blueberries as well as additional general labor and harvest help. Not insurmountable, but once again, this requirement would add new strains.

In the end, we decided there was was not enough certainty to to proceed and canceled our order before the nursery needed a deposit. Did we make the right call?

Since making that decision, blueberries have expanded to more than 526 acres of Ventura County cropland, making it the #16 crop for 2012 with over $13,000,000 worth sold. The pH problem has been worked out (heavy application of sulfur prior to planting, plus acidified irrigation water applied regularly by drip, for those interested.) Blueberries are working for somebody. But yields are variable and prices have not been all that was hoped for 10 years ago. So for us, skipping blueberries was the right move. I don’t consider the time spent exploring them to have been wasted…far from it. I learned a great deal about a different sector of agriculture, picked up a few ideas that we applied to other crops, but really gained a better understanding of crop selection.

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