Blueberry grower tries new methods
While Michigan is considered a natural for blueberry production because of the acid, sandy soils located in the moderated climate along Lake Michigan, Steve Hunt is adopting methods that were developed in other areas, like the Northwest and Southeast.
Weed control is difficult, and herbicides can damage the canes or reduce their rate of growth. So, Hunt, who farms near Grand Junction, Michigan, now plants his berries on landscape fabric that reduces weed competition. The fabric, unlike plastic film, lasts for many years.
Blueberries don’t like wet conditions around their roots, so Hunt now plants his on raised beds. He uses wood chips to provide internal drainage and organic matter and keep the soil moist and acid.
Blueberries are shallow-rooted and don’t tolerate dry conditions, so Hunt now irrigates all his blueberries. He doesn’t have as much water available as he’d like, so the newer plantings use trickle irrigation. A pair of lines is installed under the fabric as the beds are formed. About 60 acres are watered with overhead irrigation, which serves double duty, being used in the spring for frost protection.
Blueberries, managed right, can produce for many years—50 or more—but it’s important to keep up with new varieties. Because of increasing world production of blueberries, the processed market is becoming less profitable, and it will be a real challenge for the industry to increase consumption to meet the increasing supply. Hunt believes Michigan growers will have to target the late-season fresh market to remain profitable on processed fruit.
The day Good Fruit Grower visited, Hunt showed a new planting he was making using the Michigan State University-developed, late-season variety Liberty.
He uses a bed-forming machine that shapes the bed, covers it with fabric, and covers the fabric edges with soil to keep it firmly in place. Wood chips were laid down earlier and incorporated into the soil where the beds will be. Blueberry plants will be planted by hand, three feet apart, through the fabric. The rows are ten feet apart.
While new plantings can produce berries already in the second year, traditionally, it takes 8 to 12 years to reach full production and about seven years to break even. New practices, like trickle irrigation and fertigation, aim to hurry that along. He’d like to see breakeven in three years.
Hunt buys his new plants produced as tissue culture plugs instead of rooted cuttings, and he grows them himself in his own nursery in their own gallon pots until they are one or two years old and ready to plant in the field. The goal is to get bigger plants that produce more fruit earlier.