Did you know that Georgia blueberries can actually thank those from Florida for their existence? Florida blueberries started popping up at the end of the 19th century as small black fruits, which could not compete with the New Jersey cultivars from breeding programs. Meanwhile, fishermen’s wives in Georgia wanted blueberries…and so they were transplanted from west Florida! In 1925, the best selections of rabbiteye blueberries were brought in from private collections of wild seedlings (or young plants) and planted at the University of Georgia – Tifton. Fast forward to the the early-1940’s, when thanks to the foresight of Mr. Cason J. Callaway, Georgia legislator, funding was secured to establish blueberry breeding in Tifton.
Then, in 1944, Dr. Tom Brightwell, was hired to help establish a research site established in the flatwoods district at UGA Alapaha. Dr. Brightwell and Drs. Darrow, Scott, Galleta, Moore, and Draper from the USDA worked together on this very important blueberry breeding project.
Cultivars (cultured variety of a plant) were released in 1950 as ‘Callaway’ and ‘Coastal.’ In 1955, the state of Georgia proudly released the first cultivar with good commercial quality, ‘Tifblue.’
The industry developed slowly in the 1950’s and 60s with 100 acres set in scattered locations across Georgia, but the state was well on its way to huge growth. In the early 1970s, federal grant money via the Model Cities Program in Alma allowed for the purchase of mechanical harvesters and the establishment of the Georgia Blueberry Association, at which time, 1,500 acres were planted in South Georgia.
Because at this time the Georgia Blueberry Association did not provide them with marketing opportunities in the early 1980’s, many Georgia growers joined the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association. The number of acres steadily increased in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Today, it is estimated that more than 4,700 acres have been planted, with about 85% of production in southeast Georgia.
The Georgia blueberry harvest season starts each year in mid to late April in the southernmost part of Georgia, and the harvest continues throughout July. The harvest season in north Georgia lasts through August, giving Georgia the right to boast the longest harvest of any blueberry-growing state in the country, with a total of 90 plus days of harvest.
Georgia is projected to become the second largest producer of cultivated blueberries in 2012.
Special thanks to Dr. Gerard Krewer, Extension Horticulturist - Fruit Crops, for his help with providing information and images on the history of Georgia blueberries.