Good Fruit Grower

December 2012

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Page 52 of 79

The bed-forming tool shapes the bed, inserts two irrigation tube lines, one on each side of the future row, and lays down landscaping fabric to subdue weeds and reduce reliance on herbicides. BLUEBERRY GROWER tries new methods developed in other areas, like the Northwest and Southeast. Weed control is difficult, and herbicides can damage the canes or W 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 hile 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 Steve Hunt uses a landscape fabric to control weeds, rather than herbicides. 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 him- self 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. —R. Lehnert with them to the plantation one day (without the grower's knowledge) because their day- care center was closed and the parents needed to either stay home or bring their children to work with them. Rules today say, every picker must be on the payroll and get a check in his or her own name. And no underage child can work. "These are good rules, and the industry follows them. It just seems sad that people today are so detached from the world of farming." He asks the question, "Where do you want your food to come from? Would you like it to come from other countries that have limited food safety protocols and weak child labor laws? We need to keep our farms profitable, and farms need a reliable, affordable, and legal labor pool." In the blueberry business, world production is exploding. In Michigan, "Where do you want your food to come which was the leading producing state for a long time, many growers complain they are being forced to live by rules others won't have to. Will American consumers concern themselves with child labor as the Chinese expand in blueberries and want to sell them here? Research Before reaching the top position in the Michigan State Horticultural Society, Hunt was active on the committee encouraging growers to contribute to the society's 501(c)(3) trust fund. The fund is about a million dollars and generates about $50,000 a year that is used to support horticultural research, extension, and educational projects. Funds are applied for, and recommendations are made by a separate committee and then approved by the entire board of directors of the hort society. "More and more, we will have to fund the needed research ourselves," he said. "We can't rely on our state universities as much as we used to. In fact, we feel our land-grant university is turning its back on us a bit, cutting corners and consolidating programs. We have spent 150 years building up this base of knowledge and professionals, and now public support for it seems to be withering away. Donating to the trust fund is one way growers can keep American agriculture on the cutting edge." • GOOD FRUIT GROWER DECEMBER 2012 53 from?" —Steve Hunt photo by richard lehnert

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