Blueberry Sensation: South Georgia Benefiting Economically from Super Fruit
The farm-to-table journey for blueberries began in the early 20th century when Elizabeth White, daughter of a New Jersey farmer, teamed up with Frederick Coville, a botanist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to identify wild plants to crossbreed and create new varieties of blueberries that could be grown domestically.
White and Coville planted their first blueberry bushes in 1912, and in 1916 the first commercial blueberry crops were harvested and sold commercially in Whitesbog, New Jersey.
This year the U.S. celebrates the 100th anniversary of commercial blueberry production. In Georgia, it was nine years later before blueberries first entered the farm scene.
According to the Georgia Blueberry Growers Association (GBGA), in 1925 the best selections of Rabbiteye blueberry bushes were transplanted from West Florida to the University of Georgia (UGA) Tifton campus. In the early 1940s, Cason J. Callaway, a Georgia legislator, secured funding to establish research for blueberry breeding in South Georgia.
The blueberry industry developed slowly throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with an estimated 100 acres of blueberries planted throughout the state. A decade later, with assistance from federal funds, a mechanical harvesting machine was purchased for use in Bacon County (Alma, Georgia) and the GBGA was established, at which time there were only 1,500 documented acres of blueberry plants in South Georgia.
Today, Georgia ranks as one of the highest producing blueberry states in the U.S., and blueberries are currently the top fruit crop produced in Georgia.
According to the 2014 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report, there are 28,643 acres of blueberries planted throughout Georgia, with the top three producing counties located in South Georgia—Bacon (8,440 acres), Clinch (6,410 acres), and Appling (4,500 acres)—coming in with a combined $254 million in farm gate value as compared to the state’s overall $335.2 million.
“A lot of blueberries are grown in Southeast Georgia because blueberries do best in acidic soil, which has a low pH level,” said Renée Allen, UGA area blueberry agent. “Blueberries also like to grow where there is good drainage, like sandy soils, and in soil that has higher organic matter.”
Allen explains that in Georgia there are two main types of blueberry plants, the Southern Highbush, which is harvested in April and May, and Rabbiteye, which is harvested in May and June. The Rabbiteye is a native species to Georgia and is typically harvested by machine, while the Southern Highbush is primarily hand-picked for most of the season.
Allen, who earned a Master of Science in plant pathology from UGA while conducting research on blueberry diseases for 2.5 years, has now been working with South Georgia blueberry farmers for an additional three years.
“I help the farmer troubleshoot in the field by diagnosing the issue in question and making management recommendations,” she said.
Allen manages a blueberry research and demonstration farm in Alma, Georgia, and collaborates and coordinates with blueberry specialists, county agricultural agents, and growers to conduct research trials, host field days, and promote blueberry education through the region.
Blueberries Linked to Super Health Benefits
The popularity of blueberries is growing within the U.S. and internationally. For farmers in Georgia, it comes as no surprise that the now commonly known “super fruit” is gaining well-deserved attention, not just for its sweet taste but also for its nutritional value.
According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, blueberries are highly beneficial in maintaining memory function and preventing cognitive degeneration. Recent studies have also found that eating blueberries reduces the risk of heart attack in women by 33 percent (Harvard School of Public Health).
Considered to be high in antioxidants, these tasty little berries help protect the body against chronic diseases associated with aging. Blueberries also contain a large quantity of folic acid, which helps guard against several types of cancer and can be beneficial for consumption by women during pregnancy.
Juicing the Fruit
You don’t have to convince Shawn Davis that blueberries are a healthy food choice for people of all ages.
“Blueberries are the No. 1 super fruit on the market,” said Davis, who along with members of his family has been farming blueberries for several decades. “Research has also shown that blueberries help regenerate cells.”
In 2008, Davis, along with Francis and Clara Spellman and Scotty and Lorinda Hartley, formed Southern Press and Packing, located in Blackshear, Georgia. In 2014, the company became family owned and operated when Trey and Shea Davis and Andy and Tammy Brannen joined the team.
The primary focus of Southern Press and Packing is to provide fresh and frozen blueberries and 100 percent all natural blueberry juice under the Regenerate brand. The company is committed to delivering products that help people of all ages develop a healthy lifestyle and reduce issues related to diabetes and childhood obesity.
According to Davis, after months of research and several attempts, the team was able to produce juice that delivers the sweet taste of the berries without a lingering aftertaste that is sometimes found in other blueberry juices.
Southern Press and Packing began marketing the pure blueberry juice regionally in grocery stores and retailers. In 2012, the company introduced Regenerate to school-aged children in Pierce County Schools.
“We partnered with Southern Press and Packing because we knew that through the UGA study blueberries have high antioxidant value and knew it would be good for the students,” said Rhonda Cooper, Pierce County Schools nutrition director. “The children like the blueberry juice, and it is a one-of-a-kind product produced locally.”
Cooper and other local school nutritionists worked with Southern Press and Packing to help the company become an approved USDA commodity processor.
“Once schools in our area began purchasing the Regenerate juice we could show the USDA the need and desire for the juice,” Cooper said. “We are now able to purchase the berries at a lower rate through the USDA commodities program. We then select Southern Press and Packing as the processor, and they then supply the juice to the schools in four-ounce containers.”
According to Davis, Regenerate is one of only a few blueberry commodity processors approved by the USDA in the U.S.
Tammy Brannen, who oversees Southern Press and Packing’s school juice program, says that offering Regenerate, which is a pure blueberry juice with no added sugars or preservatives, provides a healthy drink alternative for school-aged children.
“Regenerate blueberry juice is now offered in about 75 to 80 percent of the schools in Georgia,” said Brannen. “The blueberry juice is also being taste tested in Florida, and so far we have received favorable results.”
Southern Press and Packing is committed to expanding its distribution of Regenerate products and supporting further research regarding the health benefits of blueberries. The company is a founding member of the Blueberry Family Health Foundation and supports the UGA Sports Nutrition Department through financial sponsorship of a sports nutrition assistant position.
According to Davis, UGA’s Sports Nutrition Department is providing Regenerate blueberry juice to student-athletes to help in their overall health conditioning program.
“They give doses of the blueberry juice to the athletes as part of an overall rehabilitation routine,” Davis said. “It is also an opportunity for the department to conduct research on the benefits of the juice.”
Blueberries have a blue or dark purple color because they contain high levels of anthocyanin, which is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
“In general, athletes workout at a very high level of intensity and can get muscle damage,” said Jennifer Ketterly, director of Sports Nutrition at UGA. “During the recovery process there are a lot of components, and one is helping the muscles recover from damage. If we can reduce extended inflammation and help repair that muscle physiologically, then we can reduce the damage and help the muscles come back stronger over time.”
Ketterly, who has more than 15 years of experience in collegiate sports nutrition, explains that giving athletes pure blueberry juice is just part of the rehabilitation process.
“Providing 100 percent blueberry juice is part of our approach,” Ketterly said. “It’s not a one-magic-bullet solution but part of a comprehensive plan that we use in helping our athletes recover.”