New varieties bred to help growersNeSmith works closely with Georgia growers as the state’sblueberry breeder. He tests potential new varieties on Georgiafarms across the state. Those tests’ results have yielded bettervarieties for Georgia growers.”We’ve increased Georgia’s blueberry season significantly overthe past six to eight years with new southern highbushvarieties,” he said. “What makes our breeding program sosuccessful is grower input.”Growers tell NeSmith what qualities they need in new varieties,and he works to breed them into a new release. In the past twoyears NeSmith released two new rabbiteye varieties and justreleased a new southern highbush variety.”The new highbush, Palmetto, has good flavor and quality andproduces medium-sized berries,” NeSmith said. “Farmers will alsolike the fact that it can be harvested in late April to the firstof May, which gets their berries into the fresh market evenearlier.”Cornelius says he and other growers try to be realistic in theirrequests for new varieties.”Each variety has good and bad traits, and Scott works toincrease the good and decrease the bad,” he said. “That’s what weneed.”He chuckles at the input a grower once gave a Florida breeder.”A friend of mine told a plant breeder once, what we need is aberry you can throw up in the air 10 feet, let it bounce to theconcrete, roll 20 feet, and then put in a cup and sell,”Cornelius said. It’s not the volume that hurts”What hurts is the duration that the berry skins are wet,”Cornelius said. “If they stay wet 24 hours, you’ll have problems,36 hours you have serious problems, and 48 hours you’re in bigtrouble.”The wetness causes the berries to split open, making them uselessto growers and consumers.”The berries that split are eaten up or blown out or torn up byour picking equipment,” he said. “So you don’t get any dollarvalue out of them.”On his 184-acre Manor, Ga., farm, Cornelius has already lostprofits because of the rain.”It’s costing us now in fresh and frozen berries,” he said.”Another three or four days of this and we are going to lose outcompletely.”About 60 percent of Georgia’s blueberries are sold to the frozenmarket and 40 percent for the fresh market. Most Georgia berriesare exported across North America and into parts of Europe,Cornelius said. State grows two types of berriesAround 90 percent of Georgia’s blueberries are rabbiteyevarieties that are harvested from late May to July or earlyAugust. The rest are southern highbush.”You can’t tell by looking at the berries which type they are,”Cornelius said. “But there are differences in flavor. Therabbiteyes have a little tougher skin and a little more texture.The key is to keep either type on the bush as long as possible toproduce a better-tasting berry.”Before the rains hit, Georgia growers were enjoying the bestearly crop they’ve ever had. Production was higher than normal insouthern highbush blueberries this season, but the dollar valuewas down, Cornelius said. The rabbiteye production was promisingbefore the rains came.”The latest crop reports show the 2003 farm gate value of Georgiablueberries was $26.7 million,” said Scott NeSmith, a Universityof Georgia horticulturist. “In 1990, there were just 3,200 acresof blueberries in Georgia, and now there are just shy of 8,000.” By Sharon OmahenUniversity of GeorgiaRecent rains across Georgia have the state’s blueberrygrowers holding their breath as to whether they’ll make a profitthis year.”Wet weather like this keeps us from picking fresh berries,” saidJoe Cornelius, president of the Georgia Blueberry GrowersAssociation. “We can pick (berries for processing) when it’s wet,but not berries for the fresh market, and the fresh bring ahigher price.”When it comes to blueberries, it’s not the volume of rain thatgrowers fear.