Home » News » BLUE SKIES IN ‘BAMA: Blueberries Finding Home In Alabama Orchards

BLUE SKIES IN ‘BAMA: Blueberries Finding Home In Alabama Orchards

BLUE SKIES IN ‘BAMA: Blueberries Finding Home In Alabama Orchards
June 17, 2008 |

Call it a vision, a foreshadowing or maybe just a sense of deja blue. Whatever you call it, Wyatt Oates of Headland was seeing nothing but blue skies.Everywhere he looked, or so it seemed, he found
himself hearing, seeing or reading about blueberries.”I’d pick up a package in the grocery store — the ingredients would have blueberries in it,” said Oates, an agri-chemical salesman from Headland. “Muffins, pancakes, syrups, jelly …”
Then he picked up a clear, plastic clamshell package of the little blues and saw the big price — $4 for 4.4 ounces.”That’s when I got to looking at blueberries,” said Oates. “That’s quite a bit of money per pound. About $16 a pound?! When peanuts sell for 25 cents a pound, that’s a lot of money. And I got to asking, ‘Where are these things grown?'”Where they’re grown is no longer a mystery to Oates because he and partner Glenn Dell operate the only “commercially viable” orchards in the southern half of the state, and Oates has become such an ambassador for blueberries that he was recently elected vice president of the newly organized Wiregrass Blueberry Growers Association. Oates has high hopes for the association that includes about 25 farms and almost 40 individuals so far, including nine growers from northern Florida. For one, he hopes it will be able to establish a centralized shipping point, perhaps in Headland, where growers can bring their berries into a cooler and package them under a single label. Then, together, he hopes the growers can market their product to an ever-expanding, health-conscious global market where demand far exceeds supply.”It’s a worldwide market,” Oates declares. “They can’t grow blueberries in China, and they’ve got the money to buy them. They are going to be a very, very large customer. They have 400 acres total in China, but their altitudes are too high. The Pacific Rim and Japanese love blueberry wine and concentrated juices. It’s a big market. It’s not running around peddling them. It’s a ‘pull’ market — we don’t have to push it.”Clinton Smith, who is the Wiregrass association’s first president and is retired from back-to-back careers as a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and aerospace defense contractor, says Oates has done his homework.”Wyatt’s done a very good job of ferreting out the basic elements of the blueberry industry,” said Smith, who was so sold on the merits of blueberry farming that he and his wife, Peggy, planted a 10-acre orchard on the family farm in Houston County. “Commercial production of blueberries is an established industry in Georgia, Mississippi and other nearby states, and there’s no reason it can’t become an established industry in Alabama.”Oates estimates the Wiregrass area, which includes southeast Alabama as well as parts of southwest Georgia and northern Florida, has about 225 acres in production and almost another 100 acres due to be planted by the end of this year.”We really don’t know how many acres are in Alabama, but we suspect there are less than 500,” said Smith, adding that he believes Georgia is now among the top-producing states with between 15,000 to 20,000 acres of blueberries. “We just don’t have hard, quantitative data about our performance yet. Next year we’ll have more, and the next year even more. But we’ve made a remarkable start, and a lot of that is due to Wyatt’s efforts.”Both tout the health benefits of the blueberry, such as being high in cancer-fighting anti-oxidants, slowing the aging process, improving urinary tract health and even improving the memory.”Just Google ‘blueberry health’ and you’ll see for yourself,” advised Smith.Harold Raley of Houston County was so convinced that he turned 35 acres of row crop land into a blueberry orchard two years ago, thus becoming Alabama’s largest producer.”We had been looking for something to get away from row crops in our area,” said Raley, who was recently elected as a board member of the Wiregrass association. “We are so scattered here that the only way we can water in our part of the county is with wells. So, we were looking for something we could irrigate, and try to stay in the farming business.”Raley said he planted five different varieties to aid in cross-pollination. “We’re kind of learning as we go,” he said. “We still have a lot to work to do. There’s a lot more work to do than anybody will tell you there is. I guarantee you that. Just like any other crop — you have to look after it.””We’re not saying it’s a panacea,” said Smith. “There are problems. The cost of entry is pretty high, not even counting the land cost. The cost of buying the bushes, the labor to get them planted, buying and installing the irrigation system, establishing your water source — whether it’s pumped from a pond, river or drilling a well — all add up quickly.”But the biggest obstacle, as both Oates and Smith will tell you, is time.”One thing that turns people off of blueberries is that it takes five years for orchards to reach maximum production,” said Smith. “You’ll get some berries before that, and by the third year, you’ll have what the experts call a ‘commercially viable’ harvest, but you’re not going to have the yield and the cash flow you want before then.”Oates, however, found a shortcut. During his blueberry research, he overheard a group of ladies at a nearby table talking about picking blueberries at an abandoned orchard in Barbour County between Louisville and Clio.
Digging deeper, Oates discovered that the orchard was planted in 1991 and once flourished to the point that it served two major grocery chains but was now overgrown with weeds, trees and other brush. Joining forces with Dell, they worked to secure a long-term lease on that 20-acre orchard, along with another five-acre field, and began whipping them back into shape. Last year’s crop, harvested with their very own $70,000 mechanical blueberry picker, wasn’t bad, but they hope this year will be even better.”Blueberries have good potential for export because a lot of countries can’t grow blueberries as well as we can here, and they want dried blueberries, frozen blueberries and fresh-market berries” said Smith.”And it’s about a 50-50 market — 50 percent fresh and 50 percent processed,” said Oates, rattling off such processed products as pancakes, dehydrated berries for cereals, muffins, etc. “The sky’s the limit.”For members of the Wiregrass Blueberry Growers Association, they hope it will be mostly blue skies.For more information about the Wiregrass Blueberry Growers Association or to purchase blueberry plantings, contact Wyatt Oates at Blues Brothers Orchards, 255 County Road 49, Headland, AL 36345, call (334) 726-9008 or email him at wsoates@gmail.com

View Related Articles