Researchers release new blueberry varieties
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Researchers release
new blueberry varieties

Dr. Jim Ballington and his research team developed blueberry cultivars adapted to mechanical harvesting. (Photo by Art Latham)

North Carolina State University’s blueberry researchers are far from singing the blues.

In fact, College-based researchers, working through the Horticultural Crops Research Station at Castle Hayne, have released 20 blueberry varieties in the past 15 years. And they just released three more.

The research station conducts greenhouse studies and field experiments to help growers increase horticultural crops’ yield and quality in North Carolina’s coastal plain. Station research includes identification and evaluation of potential new blueberry cultivars and improving blueberry production techniques — stressing innovative technology development for commercial shippers, pick-your-own growers and home planters.

Blueberries, North Carolina’s top small fruit crop, generated $18.9 million in cash receipts for 2001, with 4,500 acres planted. That topped 2000’s receipts of $18.1 million and 1999’s $13.4 million, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ most recent statistics. Most of the state’s blueberry acreage is in the Southern coastal plain, with some scattered across the rest of the state, which ranks sixth nationally in blueberry production.

“ Our research tends to concentrate on developing cultivars adapted to mechanical harvesting,” says Dr. Jim Ballington, horticulturist and plant breeder in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. As the campus-based leader of Castle Hayne’s blueberry breeding research efforts, he works with on-site co-leader and horticultural research associate Susan Rooks. He also works cooperatively with Bill Cline, an on-site researcher and Extension specialist in the College’s Plant Pathology Department.

Ballington’s team most recently released three North Carolina-oriented cultivars — “Craven,” “Pamlico” and “Lenoir” — all adapted to machine harvesting.

Ballington says the three help extend and fill in gaps in the ripening season by providing a series of cultivars adapted to mechanical harvesting.

“ Fortunately,” he says, “the North Carolina blueberry industry has a significant market window, which falls between the earlier harvests in Florida and Georgia, and before harvests in northeastern states.

“‘ Craven,’” says Ballington, “an early-midseason fruit, will follow the early-ripening mechanical harvesting cultivars ‘Bladen’ and ‘Reveille,’ helping fill the gap between these cultivars and the midseason mechanical harvest cultivar ‘Pender’ with an improved mechanical harvest cultivar adapted to both fresh packing and processing.”

“ Pamlico” also will follow “Bladen” and “Reveille” and will ripen before “Pender,” helping fill the gap between these cultivars with another improved cultivar adapted to mechanical harvesting. It’s resistant to blueberry stem blight, one of the state’s most significant blueberry diseases, Ballington notes.

“ Lenoir” ripens at about the same time as “Pender,” can be mechanically harvested for both fresh and processing markets and boasts a large enough fruit to be hand-harvested where labor is available.

Ballington says Lenoir will provide an improved quality mechanical harvest-adapted cultivar to follow early midseason cultivars Craven and Pamlico.

The Horticultural Crops Research Station, established in 1946 as the Vegetable Research Laboratory, sits on 60 flat acres just north of Wilmington. An additional 50-acre tract (called the Ideal Tract because Ideal Concrete Co. once owned it) is northeast of the main station. N.C. State recently bought 12 nearby acres, previously leased by the station, for blueberry research.

Blueberries are temperature-sensitive, needing a certain amount of cool weather to produce a proper crop, and reliable weather data are important to crop success. Last August, the station, a cooperative observation site for the National Weather Service for more than 50 years, was presented that agency’s “Institutional Award.”

Says Richard Anthony, the NWS’s Wilmington office chief meteorologist, “The century-long accumulation of accurate weather observations by volunteer observers such as the Horticultural Crops Research Station’s allow scientists to understand the United States’ climate, providing an accurate picture of a location’s normal weather, and giving climatologists and others a basis for predicting future trends.”

Other projects at the station include strawberry research and herbicide evaluations with both container-grown ornamental stock and field-grown landscape trees to evaluate new chemicals for possible commercial use.

Studies of herbicide and fertilizer injections through irrigation systems are also under way, as is work with grapes, including fertility studies, mechanical harvesting and pruning and disease and insect control methods.

— Art Latham

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