By STAN MADDUX
PLYMOUTH, Ind. — Blueberry pickers in Indiana and Michigan should have no problem filling buckets this season despite the heavy toll extreme winter cold had on peaches and other fruit in parts of the region.
Growers like Dean Ott at Stateline Blueberries, near the Indiana-Michigan border outside New Buffalo, Mich., and Gary Tillman at Tillman Farms U-Pick near Plymouth in northern Indiana gave high marks for the number and size of their early berries.
Tillman said it could be his best crop ever. “We have 60 acres of blueberries and they’re all full. It’s going to be hard to keep up,” he said.
Ott gave the crop on his 55 acres an A-minus. “We’ve had better years, but it’s a pretty good damn year.”
Overall, the crops were far enough along in maturity to open their fields to pickers just prior to July 4, despite maturity being a week to 10 days behind normal.
In Michigan, Mike Heibel said his bushes were full but many of the blueberries were too small yet. He hopes the 10 acres he’s owned for 40 years outside New Buffalo will be ready for picking by mid-July.
He said his berries would have been larger by now had the honeybees he brought in to pollinate been more active. He blamed the wet spring for the bees staying in their hives much of the time.
“They were lazy this year. They didn’t get the job done,” he explained.
Ott said he had plenty of pollination from using a combination of honey and mason bees in his fields. He said honeybees don’t venture out much when it rains, but mason bees are active no matter the weather conditions.
“Cold; wet; windy; it doesn’t matter. They’re out there working,” he said.
He cited good pollination and record spring rainfall for his early varieties of blueberries being the largest in his 22 years of owning the farm.
Mark Longstroth, a fruit educator for the Michigan State University extension office at Kalamazoo, rated this year’s crop statewide as average. He said there were some blueberry bushes damaged by the extreme late January and early February cold that wiped out most of this year’s peaches and wine grapes in southwestern Michigan.
The damage to blueberries, though, was not nearly as bad as he expected going into the season because of temperatures greater than minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit. “I expected to see a lot of winter injury in blueberries. We did see that in some places, but the crop looks better and better. With all of the rain, the crop has sized really well,” he said.
Longstroth said most of the damage is in fields away from Lake Michigan that don’t have the protection of warmer air blowing in from the lake during the winter. Peaches and wine grapes sustained much greater losses because they’re more susceptible to extreme cold than blueberries and other heartier crops like apples.
Ott said he doesn’t prune his bushes as far back as other growers after the season, to offer more protection against winter extremes. Freshly-cut branches sprout new growth to produce more fruit, but cuts not healed over enough absorb more of the bud-killing cold.
“You’ll get extra fruit but then if you have that polar vortex come through, they won’t harden off enough to sustain themselves through that,” Ott said.
Indiana and Michigan are among the 10 states that produce 98 percent of the nation’s blueberries, according to the U.S High Bush Blueberry Council. The others are California, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington.
Sandier soil high in organic matter with a naturally high water table is cited for most of the plantings in Indiana being in the northern third of the state and the southwestern part of Michigan.