Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 11, Issue 2 - December, 2018

Editor: Lee Stivers

Current Issues of Highbush Blueberry Producers with Pick-Your-Own Operations in the Northeastern United States

Boone, D. A, Professor, West Virginia University
Gould, B. T. , Graduate Student, West Virginia University/Agricultural and Extension Education
Boone Jr., H. N. , Professor, West Virginia University/Agricultural and Extension Education
Woloshuk, J. M., Extension Professor Emerita, West Virginia University Extension
Blythe, J. M., Assistant Professor, West Virginia University/Agricultural and Extension Education

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this descriptive study was to identify current issues faced by Northeastern pick-your-own highbush blueberry producers. The study found that northeastern pick-your-own highbush blueberry producers had been in business an average of 26 years and maintained from 0.25 to 45 acres of blueberries. Targeted issues included insects, disease, weeds, wildlife management, and marketing. Top issues identified by highbush blueberry producers were: Japanese beetles, mummy berry, and birds, as well as blueberry maggot, witches broom, weed management, labor/labor costs, weather, government regulation, and spotted wing drosophila. It was found that a majority of the producers did not plan to expand their operations in the next five years and had not planted new cultivars since 1999. This study sought to identify contact frequency and form of information exchanged between pick-your-own producers and their local Extension Service. Participants reported they had contact with an extension agent/educator/specialist once every six months and information was exchanged mostly in the form of newsletters and farm visits. Findings indicated that producers preferred to receive information in the form of e-mail and identified online websites as their best source of blueberry information.


Introduction

Production of highbush blueberrys in the United States has increased from 71 million to over 400 million pounds in the last forty years (US Highbush Blueberry Council, 2008). From 2003-2008 growers increased highbush blueberry production acreage an estimated 51% from 63,360 to 95,607 acres (US Highbush Blueberry Council, 2008). A more health conscious America has increased blueberry consumption over 93% from 1998 to 2008, driving market demand upward at exponential rates (US Highbush Blueberry Council, 2008). We can expect this trend to continue as total blueberry production increased from 589.1 million pounds to 703.4 million pounds during a two-year period from 2013-2015 (Cook et al., 2015). Although wholesale markets such as retail stores and large processors are options for producers to sell their produce, direct markets offer the producers the highest prices for their fresh blueberries. Pick-your-own (PYO) operations can remove the entire harvest cost for the producer, however consumer variability in choosing which berries they pick, can result in loss of crop due to it being left in the field (Demchak et al., 2017).

Wildlife damage presents a challenge to blueberry production, with bird species alone causing massive crop losses ranging from 6-20% of the total crop (Gough, 1994). A study found that a majority of the producers reported bird damage in the United States as serious to moderately serious, which has a major negative impact on blueberry production (Avery et al., 1991). Three of the bird species responsible for the most blueberry crop damage are starlings, robins, and grackles, with crows, cedar waxwings and fifteen other species also contributing to crop losses (Gough, 1994). There are various forms of bird management methods, which can be used to limit damages, including visual repellents, auditory repellents, and netting. The most effective is netting, however this can be a high cost strategy for permanent netting ranging from $1000-$3000 per acre (Gough, 1994).  

Insects such as Japanese beetles and cranberry fruitworms present challenges to highbush blueberry production. A 2006 Michigan study found that blueberry growers reported a median economic loss of $72 per acre (Szendrei and Isaacs, 2006). This could be due to the fact that adult Japanese beetles start emerging in early July and feed and mate on the bushes until mid-September, which coincides with the period of highbush blueberry harvest. In many Michigan highbush blueberry fields and along the perimeter of those fields, a mix of different monocotyledonous and broadleaved weeds are commonly used to maintain soil structure, provide conditions where agricultural machinery can be driven during wet conditions, reduce soil erosion, and prevent pesticide and fertilizer runoff. These areas provide ideal conditions for Japanese beetles where both the egg-laying and larval developmental requirements are met (Szendrei and Isaacs, 2006).

Van Timmerman and Isaacs (2009) found that cultivar selection is important. Outdated cultivar types and early blooming cultivars of blueberry plants present major pest management issues for producers due to very high susceptibilities to insects such as the Japanese beetle and cranberry fruitworm.

Highbush blueberry production is subject to various diseases that can account for up to 60% of the total yield loss from a single disease such as mummy berry (Schilder, n.d.). Schilder (n.d.) reports twelve diseases that can affect and cause severe damage to blueberry crops pre-harvest and another twelve that can affect crops post-harvest. Some of these diseases can cause problems as simple as a blemish on the berries, however retail marketers expect blemish-, mold-, and insect-free berries (Cook et al., 2015). The expectation of blemish-free berries throughout the production process creates a severe problem, even though the berry may be perfectly edible after washing (Gough, 1994; Schilder, n.d.).

Ehlenfeldt, et al. (2010) identified the high importance of cultivar selection to combat blueberry diseases. Coville, a long-term blueberry cultivar standard which is maintained and utilized by many producers, was found to have one of the lowest resistances to mummy berry and fruit infection diseases. The continued widespread use of a cultivar with such a high disease susceptibility, illustrates the importance of producer cultivar selection when conducting new plantings for their operations.

The blueberry market is expected to continue its upward trend in expansion, while yield losses due to disease, insects, and wildlife will continue to present challenges for growers. Biotechnology has presented growers with new cultivars or types of blueberry plants that can help reduce losses as a result of many of these issues. With innovations in biotechnology being so new, farmers may not be aware that better options for new plantings or replacement of current bushes exist. 

Increasing consumer demand for fresh blueberries has caused the prices for fresh-market blueberries to remain relatively high ranging from 2-5 dollars per pint (Demchak et al., 2017). Fresh-market blueberries are normally sold in plastic pint containers in markets such as wholesale, auctions, marketing cooperatives, local retail markets, and processors. Direct market options for blueberry producers include farmers markets, roadside stands, and pick-your-own operations, which provide the producer with the ability to ask and receive higher than wholesale market prices for their produce. Direct market options do have drawbacks which include advertising expenses, facility construction, facility maintenance, and employee payroll. Producers with pick-your-own operations save money by removing operation harvest costs, however producers must be willing to accept that not all fruit will be harvested (Demchak et al., 2017).

Blueberry production and market consumption have shown exponential growth over the past 40 years and are expected to continue to expand, with growth being driven by the American “Health Halo.” In order to better serve the educational needs of the industry, it is vital that we identify and understand the problems faced by the blueberry producers.     

Purpose

The purpose of this study was to identify current issues faced by pick-your-own blueberry producers in the Northeastern states. This research study looked at current issues producers in the Northeast are experiencing with pick-your-own blueberry production. In addition, this study sought to determine operation related demographics, blueberry producers’ preferred methods for obtaining information related to blueberries, and how much interaction and assistance they get from their Extension Service.

Objectives

The objectives of the research study were to:

  1. Identify the demographics related to farm size, age, and size of blueberry operations including types of blueberries grown and plants per acre.  
  2. Identify current issues producers are experiencing with insects and mites.  
  3. Identify current issues producers are experiencing with blueberry diseases. 
  4. Identify management practices used to reduce/eliminate wildlife and pests.  
  5. Identify how often producers have contact with and receive information from their local Extension Service/Agent.  
  6. Identify what form producers prefer receiving information and what format they consider to be their best source of blueberry information.

 

Methods

Population

After extensive efforts to locate a list of blueberry producers in the Northeastern United States and finding none available, the US Highbush Blueberry Council recommended we use the most available list found on-line at PickYourOwn.org, a pick-your-own berry farm website (http://www.pickyourown.org/). The site was used to identify pick-your-own blueberry producers in 12 Northeastern states (N = 616). States include West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. If the producers on the PickYourOwn.org website indicated that they had blueberries, their contact information was gleaned from the site and became part of our population. Using sample size guidelines of Krejcie and Morgan (1970), the computer software Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) was used to pull a random sample of 237 blueberry producers from the compiled list of 616.

Instrumentation

A six-part mailed survey instrument was developed to collect data. Part of the instrument utilized both open and close-ended questions that gathered demographic data including: number of years growing blueberries, farm size, number of plants, farm classification, and markets in which the produce is sold. The survey consisted of Likert type questions to gather data regarding insect and mite problems, and disease problems.  While other sections consisted of both Likert type and open-ended questions to gather data on common weed problems and management, and wildlife and nutrient management problems. The final section utilized close-ended questions to obtain data on how often the producers have contact with their state Extension Service Agents, what form they received information in, what form they most like receiving information in, and what they considered to be their best source of information. The level of influence for all Likert type questions were measured on a four-point scale that ranged from 1 = Never a problem, 2 = rarely a problem, 3 = occasional problem, and 4 = annual problem.

Content and face validity for this survey instrument were established by a panel of three Department of Agriculture and Extension Education faculty members at the West Virginia University. Internal consistency of the instrument was determined using the Spearman-Brown Coefficient, Split-Half statistical formula. All four major parts were found to have Exemplary reliability (Robinson et al., 1991).

 

Results and Discussion

Results of this study focused on pick-your-own highbush blueberry producers in the Northeastern United States.  The demographic findings in this data provide a level of understanding for the operating size of Northeastern pick-your-own highbush blueberry operations targeted in this study. Out of the 93 total respondents, 79 stated that they are currently involved in a commercial blueberry operation. The average farm size operated by pick-your-own producers was found to be 142.6 acres, with an average overall farm age of 76.2 years old. Producers maintained an average of 8.3 acres of highbush blueberries. Producers maintained an average of 715 blueberry plants per acre, and the operation had been producing blueberries for an average of 30.0 years (Table 1).

 

Table 1. Demographic information of northeastern pick-your-own blueberry producers. Mean, standard deviation, minimum and maximum. n=79.

 Demographics

M

SD

Min

Max

 Years growing blueberries

26.0

14.0

1.0

67.0

 Size of farm in acres

142.6

315.5

2.5

2700.0

 Acres of blueberries maintained

6.0

8.1

0.25

45.0

 Acres of high bush blueberries

8.3

17.0

0.0

100.0

 Acres of lowbush blueberry

0.4

2.9

0.0

25.0

 Blueberry plants per acre

715

319.6

0.0

1350.0

 Percent highbush blueberries

97.1

68.7

0.0

100.0

 Percent low bush blueberries

2.9

16.2

0.0

100.0

 Current age of farm

76.2

62.8

7.0

292.0

 

 

This study found that nearly one quarter of the producers had conducted their last blueberry planting prior to 2000. While a majority of the producers had conducted plantings after 2000, the majority of these plantings occurred in 2016 followed by 2012, and 2010. A majority of the respondents stated that they did not plan on expanding their blueberry operations within the next five years. Only 17.5% of the responding blueberry producers (n=79) planned to expand their operation within the next five years.  

With so many different farm classification labels on the market today, this study found that a large majority of Northeastern highbush blueberry producers identified their farm classification as local (51.3%), followed by natural farm (30.0%), and then as an organic farm (12.5%) (Table 2). The study found that a large majority (95.0%) of the respondents sell their produce in a pick-your-own or U-Pick style marketplace, as well as in farm stands and wholesale markets (Table 3).

 

Table 2. Pick-your-own producer farm classification. Frequency (f) and percentage of responses. n=79.

 Classification

Yes

No

 

f

%

f

%

 Organic

10

12.5

70

87.5

 Natural

24

30.0

56

70.0

 Local

41

51.3

39

48.8

 Certified Organic

2

2.5

78

97.5

 Not Certified

18

22.5

62

77.5

 Other

15

18.8

65

81.3

 

 

Table 3. Type of produce market where blueberries are sold. Frequency (f) and percentage of responses. n=79.

 Market

Yes

No

 

f

%

f

%

 Pick-your own/U-pick

76

95.0

4

5.0

 CSA

9

11.3

71

88.8

 Farmers Market

12

15.0

68

85.0

 Wholesale

17

21.3

63

78.8

 Farm Stand

33

41.3

47

58.8

 Other

5

6.3

75

93.8

 

Northeast highbush blueberry producers identified Japanese beetles, blueberry maggots and cherry fruitworms as the major causes of their annual insect and mite issues (Table 4). Annual disease issues were found to be mummy berry, witches broom, anthracnose and phomopsis twig blight (Table 5).

 

Table 4. Pick-your-own operation insect and mite severity. Frequency (f) and percentage of responses. n=79.

  Never a Problem Rarely a Problem Occasional Problem Annual Problem

 

f

%

f

%

f

%

f

%

 Japanese beetle

5

7.5

17

25.4

17

25.4

28

41.8

 Blueberry maggot

10

15.6

25

39.1

17

26.6

12

18.8

 Cherry fruitworm

37

59.7

10

16.1

9

14.5

6

9.7

 Cranberry fruitworm

38

63.3

8

13.3

9

15.0

5

8.3

 Plum Curculio

35

58.3

16

26.7

6

10.0

3

5.0

 Sharp-nosed leafhopper

41

70.7

10

17.2

4

6.9

3

5.2

 Blueberry blossom weevil

41

68.3

17

28.3

1

1.7

1

1.7

 Blueberry gall midge

37

61.7

17

28.3

5

8.3

1

1.7

 Oblique banded leafroller

36

60.0

17

28.3

6

10.0

1

1.7

 Oriental beetle

38

66.7

13

22.8

5

8.8

1

1.8

 Red banded leafroller

41

70.7

12

20.7

4

6.9

1

1.7

 Scale insects

28

45.9

22

36.1

10

16.4

1

1.6

 Blueberry bud mite

41

68.3

17

28.3

2

3.3

0

0.0

 Blueberry stem borer

30

48.4

21

33.9

11

17.7

0

0.0

 Blueberry tip borer

35

58.3

20

33.3

5

8.3

0

0.0

 Thrips

39

68.4

14

24.6

4

7.0

0

0.0

 White grubs

38

66.7

15

26.3

4

7.0

0

0.0

 Other

1

3.9

2

7.7

7

26.9

16

61.5

 

 

Table 5. Pick-your-own highbush blueberry disease severity. Frequency (f) and percentage of responses. n=79.

Diseases

Never a problem

Rarely a problem

Occasional problem

Annual problem

 

f

%

f

%

f

%

f

%

 Mummy berry

15

23.4

18

28.1

13

20.3

18

28.1

 Witches’ broom

29

50.9

11

19.3

3

5.3

14

24.6

 Phomopsis twig blight

19

33.9

11

19.6

15

26.8

11

19.6

 Anthracnose

22

37.3

11

18.6

15

25.4

11

18.6

 Botrytis blight

26

44.1

19

32.2

11

18.6

3

5.1

 Frusicoccum canker

33

62.3

14

26.4

4

7.6

2

3.8

 Powdery mildew

17

32.1

21

39.6

13

24.5

2

3.8

 Blueberry scorch virus

38

71.7

9

17.0

5

9.4

1

1.9

 Phytophthora root rot

33

62.3

15

28.3

4

7.6

1

1.9

 Red ringspot

34

64.2

16

30.2

2

3.8

1

1.9

 Blueberry stunt

38

70.4

11

20.4

4

7.4

1

1.9

 Armillaria root rot

41

78.9

10

19.2

1

1.9

0

0.0

 Blueberry shoestring  disease

42

79.3

9

17.0

2

3.8

0

0.0

 Botryosphaeria stem blight

33

63.5

16

30.8

3

5.8

0

0.0

 Botryosphaeria stem canker

35

68.6

12

23.5

4

7.8

0

0.0

 Coryneum canker

41

77.4

11

20.8

1

1.9

0

0.0

 Crown gall

38

74.5

9

17.7

4

7.8

0

0.0

 Mosaic

34

65.4

17

32.7

1

1.9

0

0.0

 

 

Annual weed issues were reported to be from all of the listed plant types. Annual broadleaf weeds, annual grasses, perennial broadleaf grasses, and perennial grasses were all reported by a majority of the producers to be annual problems (Table 6).

 

Table 6. Pick-your-own highbush blueberry operation weed severityFrequency (f) and percentage of responses. n=79.

Weeds

Never a problem

Rarely a problem

Occasional problem

Annual problem

 

f

%

f

%

f

%

f

%

 Perennial grasses

2

2.7

7

9.6

14

19.2

50

68.5

 Perennial broadleaf grasses

3

4.2

9

12.7

13

18.3

46

64.8

 Annual grasses

2

2.9

6

8.8

17

25.0

43

63.2

 Annual broadleaf weeds

2

3.0

10

15.2

19

28.8

35

53.0

 Other

0

0.0

0

0.0

2

40.0

3

60.0

 

Annual management issues were reported by a majority of respondents to occur with birds, deer, and plant fertilization. Open-ended responses identified several means of control that producers were currently utilizing, with netting as the top bird control technique identified. Respondents also identified 8ft. deer fencing as the top form of deer control and poison bait as the top means of rodent control. Herbicides were identified as being the top form of weed control for highbush blueberries (Table 7). Five of the top issues currently facing Northeastern blueberry producers were identified and ranked in order from most identified problem to least as: weed control, labor/labor costs, weather, birds, and government regulations.

 

Table 7. Pick-your-own highbush blueberry management problems. Frequency (f) and percentage of responses. n=79.

Wildlife and Nutrients

Never a Problem

Rarely a Problem

Occasional Problem

Annual Problem

 

f

%

f

%

f

%

f

%

 Birds

2

2.6

14

18.0

18

23.1

44

56.4

 Deer

24

32.9

22

30.1

18

24.67

9

12.3

 Plant fertility

20

27.4

27

37.0

17

23.3

9

12.3

 Voles

22

31.4

28

40.0

12

17.1

8

11.4

 Soil pH

21

28.4

29

39.2

18

24.3

6

8.1

 Woodchucks

36

50.0

25

34.7

5

6.9

6

8.3

 Frost

7

9.6

31

42.5

31

42.5

4

5.5

 Pollination

34

46.6

32

43.8

5

6.9

2

2.7

 Other

0

0.0

1

8.3

4

33.3

7

58.3

 

This study found that a large proportion of Northeastern blueberry producers were only in contact with their extension agent/specialist once every six months. The most recent information or services from the Extension Service was received by pick-your-own producers in 2016 and 2017. Newsletters, emails, farm visits, and workshops were reported to have been the methods by which they last received information with producers preferring to receive information in the form of emails, newsletters, and farm visits. Producers also felt that their best sources of blueberry information were websites, research publications, and other producers.

The current issues facing highbush blueberry producers, reported by nearly half of the respondents as being an annual problem, included Japanese beetles as the top insect and mite problem. Although it was not listed in the survey, it is interesting to note that nearly a quarter of the respondents identified the spotted wing drosophila insect as being an annual problem and major issue. This insect had not been reported in previous reports for the northeast.

Two diseases were found to be current issues with mummy berry identified as the largest current annual disease problem. A similar number of respondents identified witches’ broom as a major annual disease problem as well.   

Weeds were identified by more than half of the respondents in all categories to be annual problems. This corresponds to the fact that weed control was identified as the number one farm issue by the respondents. Although a majority of respondents identified herbicides as the top form of weed control, it continues to be an annual problem for Northeastern blueberry producers.

A majority of the respondents reported using a combination of several different types of control to deter birds. Controls included netting, bird guard noise systems, balloons, and reflective ribbon.

Labor/labor costs and government regulations were reported as being two of the top five farm issues. Producers tended to group these two issues together with various comments about the severity of each. A lack of quality workers willing to do manual labor, coupled with the rise of the minimum wage, was reported to have taken a heavy toll on the profit of pick-your-own blueberry producers.

Blueberry producers reported websites and research publications as being their best sources for blueberry information. Online access seems to be pivotal with Northeastern blueberry producers, as nearly two-thirds of the respondents identified email as their most preferred way of receiving information. Email, was followed closely by newsletters and farm visits. However, half of the respondents identified newsletters as being the last form in which they received information from the Extension Service. This corresponds to the fact that nearly half of the respondents reported only having contact with their extension agent/specialist once every six months. 

   

Recommendations

Based on the study’s findings and prior research, the following recommendations are presented.

Integrated pest management as discussed by Szendrei and Isaacs (2006) pertaining to clean cultivation in crop fields, would help reduce the infestation of Japanese beetles. Japanese beetles lay their larva in dead plant matter, located between uncultivated permanent sod based rows. Although clean cultivation increases the amount of dust and mud between blueberry rows, it drastically reduces the Japanese beetle infestations by removing their ability to reproduce (Szendrei and Isaacs, 2006). Clean cultivation is a low cost, high reward form of integrated pest management that would benefit pick-your-own blueberry producers.

With significant advances in genetic manipulation in the last 20 years, cultivar selection can play a huge role in a plants hardiness to not only the environment, but also insects, and disease. Ehlenfeldt et al. (2010) identified cultivars of blueberry plants that are least susceptible to the disease mummy berry. Mummy berry was identified by nearly a third of the respondents as being the top annually occurring disease. With a nearly a quarter of the producers not having conducted a new planting since 1999, selection and implementation of a new cultivar could have a tremendously positive impact on their production success.

Extension Service efforts to reach Northeastern blueberry producers could be improved if they adjusted the form and frequency in which they present producers with information. Sixty-four percent of producers identified email as their most preferred form of receiving information, and a majority of respondents identified websites as their best source of information. However, producers reported to only have contact with their extension agent/specialist once every six months, and to have received the last information in the form of newsletters and farm visits. The Extension Service could compile a comprehensive list of online contact information for blueberry producers in each state. This would allow the agency to switch to online forms of communication, such as email, websites, and online courses. Online communication would also allow the extension service to increase the frequency of contact between agents and producers. Extension agents could then send informative newsletters via email to producers once a month increasing contact frequency and information availability.  

With respondents indicating their preference for using technology to receive information, the Extension Service could use on-line resources and short courses to increase producer knowledge on various topics. Although nearly half of the respondents identified herbicide use as a form of weed control, weed management was still one of the largest annual issues and was reported in multiple categories. The availability of online information or courses focused on herbicide selection and use could be of great benefit to producers that may not be able to participate in face-to-face pesticide certification courses. This informational or training course could also be used to present producers with the most recent form of farm management practices and cultivar selections. With a large majority of producers using email and online websites to garner information already, an online course would have a high probability of being successful.

Recommendations for Further Research

Spotted wing drosophila was first discovered in California in 2008 and is an invasive species from Asia (Beers et al., 2010). By the fall of 2010 it was detected in Michigan, Utah, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The researcher did not find any research studies that clearly supported the detection or severity of spotted wing drosophila in the Northeastern United States. Findings from this study suggest that spotted wing drosophila has spread to the Northeast and has become an annual issue for pick-your-own highbush blueberry producers. Further research is needed in order to firmly establish the detection of regional infestations and severity of the spotted winged drosophila invasive species in the Northeast.

 

References

Avery, M. L., Nelson, L., John, W., and Cone, M. A. (1991). Survey of bird damage to blueberries in North America. Fifth Eastern Wildlife Damage Control Conference, Paper 2. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/ewdcc5/2/?utm_source=digitalcommons.unl.edu%2Fewdcc5%2F2&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages

Beers, H. E., Smith, J. T., and Walsh, D. (2010). Spotted Wing Drosophila. Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center. http://jenny.tfrec.wsu.edu/opm/displayspecies.php?pn=165

Cook, R., Peacock, D., Malensky, J., and Granatstein, D. (2015). OSU blueberry school: Marketing- What’s the future for fresh, processed, and organic markets? http://oregonstate.edu/dept/NWREC/sites/default/files/pg_programs/berry/documents/009-0014-marketing-whats_the_future.pdf

Demchak, K., Harper, K. J., and Kime, F. L., (2017). Highbush blueberry production. Penn State Extension. http://extension.psu.edu/business/ag-alternatives/horticulture/fruits/highbush-blueberry-production

Ehlenfeldt, K. M., Polashock, J. J., & Stretch, W. A. (2010). Ranking cultivated blueberry for mummy berry blight and fruit infection incidence using resampling and principal components analysis. HortScience, 45, 1205-1210. Retrieved from http://hortsci.ashspublications.org.www.libproxy.wvu.edu/content/45/8/1205.full.pdf+html

Gough, E. R. (1994). The highbush blueberry and its management. New York: Food Products Press.

Krejcie, R., and Morgan, D. (1970). Determining sample size for research activities. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 30, 607-610.

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Acknowledgement

This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch project WVA00657 and the West Virginia Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.