ATLANTA (AP) – What is the most valuable fruit crop produced in the Peach State?
This is not a trick question, but you may want to pause a second before answering.
Ready? It’s the blueberry.
Georgia is famous as a major producer of the peach, the fuzzy succulent orange fruit whose image appears on state license plates, “welcome to Georgia” billboards and on road signs. When driving in the capital city of Atlanta, you can pass the corner of Peachtree Street and Peachtree Center Avenue, just one block from West Peachtree Street.
There’s just one problem: Blueberries are Georgia’s most lucrative fruit crop, by far.
In a little-noticed development, the value of blueberry production in Georgia beat the peach crop in 2005 _ and the gap has grown even bigger since then, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys.
Blueberries generated an estimated $94 million for Georgia growers in 2012, meaning the blueberry crop was more than three times as valuable as the nearly $30 million peach crop.
“It’s surprising around the country how many people don’t realize Georgia grows blueberries,” said Joe Cornelius, chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission and a farmer who grows about 170 acres of the crop. He refuses to gloat about surpassing his fellow peach farmers. “I don’t foresee Georgia changing to the blueberry state.”
Analysts and growers say a combination of supply-and-demand economics coupled with a good growing environment propelled blueberries from a tiny crop to a profitable niche that dwarfs the famed peach.
Blueberries used to make up a relatively small percentage of the state’s fruit crop. But major blueberry producers, particularly in Michigan, were searching for ways to get berries on the supermarket shelves earlier in the year. They signed deals with growers in Georgia since the state starts harvesting its berries in April, ahead of other producers except Florida and California, said Scott NeSmith, a horticulturist at the University of Georgia who studies blueberries.
Other climate factors help, too. While blueberry-killing frosts are possible in Georgia, they are not frequent.
Celebrated by physicians and nutritionists for their antioxidant qualities, blueberries have grown greatly in demand among health-conscious consumers. Farmers say it greatly expanded the public’s appetite for the berry.
Average prices have jumped from 48 cents a pound in 1993 to $1.34 in 2012, and the growth was among one of the main factors prompting farmers to plant larger and larger numbers of blueberry bushes.
It only takes three or four years for the bushes to reach full production. Since prices hit a peak in 2007, many of the new blueberry fields planted by farmers seeking lucrative prices are now entering full production. And as supply has increased, prices have decreased.
“We’re probably nearing the peak, I feel,” said Bradley Vickers, 28, a blueberry farmer from rural Nashville, Ga. “I hope it continues to be profitable for my sake and everyone else’s.”
Another reason blueberries have proliferated to such a degree is that Georgia farmers are searching for alternatives to traditional Southern crops such as tobacco and timber. Tobacco production has trailed off as Americans smoke less, and the timber industry took a big hit when the Great Recession slowed home building.
Vickers is one of those farmers. As of now, he still makes more money from tobacco, and sometimes cotton and peanuts. But he thinks blueberries probably have better long-term prospects than tobacco.
“If they begin to go down _and tobacco is probably one of those things _ I have something to replace that, in case we need it,” he said.
Georgia is not the biggest U.S. peach producer, and is regularly beat by California and neighboring South Carolina. Its reputation for peaches was always one part reality and one part marketing.
The Civil War left the Southern economy in ruins and ended slavery, which meant it was no longer possible for white farmers to produce cotton and other labor-intensive cash crops with cheap slave labor.
One alternative was peaches. Samuel Rumph, a 19th century grower in Georgia, was a major innovator, commercializing a tasty and robust variety called the Elberta, named for his wife. Perhaps more important, he developed a refrigerated rail car, making it possible to ship Georgia peaches to larger markets in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. As a result, Northern customers started associating Georgia with peaches.
“He had a great product. He didn’t have a way to get it to market,” said Will McGehee, a fifth-generation peach grower and the marketing director for the Georgia Peach Council. “And the refrigerated rail car was the answer. And so finally you were able to connect demand and supply.”
Follow Ray Henry on Twitter:
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
- Deciding when you need knee surgery
- Celebrating Fourth of July is much cooler in these AZ towns
- Top ten road trip bathrooms in America
- Six things causing a pain in your neck
- 5 things to make your summer move easier
- Three elements of a strong timeshare exit guarantee
- Stretches and exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome
- The best Major League ballparks have their own personality
- Comparing the best regular seasons: The '96 Bulls and '16 Warriors
- 3 Arizona road trips and the vehicles to get you there
- Colon cancer is preventable. Check these signs and symptoms to stay healthy.
- 6 of the biggest skin cancer myths
- Affordable small home makeover ideas
- Locals helping locals: 6 success stories you need to know about
- Sunscreen facts that could save your life
- 6 energy saving hacks for your home
- 5 tips for choosing a company to end your timeshare
- Overlooked water tips to save you money
- 5 of the most adored gentlemen in professional sports today
- The real danger of sitting at your desk
- Most surprising NBA playoff performances of the last 40 years
- 11 classic baseball movies you must see again
- Finally getting rid of fat: 3 methods that actually work
- 4 reasons cancer survivors should focus on food
- 5 spring cleaning spots everyone forgets
- 5 reasons to look forward to watching the D-backs this season
- Common virus attributed to spike in head and neck cancers
- 5 signs it’s time to end your timeshare ownership
- 3 most overlooked ways to keep your home healthy
- 6 ways the air in your home could be making you sick