Blueberry farmers, like Dick Byne in Georgia, are adapting to changing climate and weather patterns in order to yield the best produce.
“This is the time of year our plants go to sleep,” said Byne, owner of Byne’s Organic Blueberry Farm in Waynesboro.
It may sound strange, but blueberry plants need their sleep too, and winter is the time for it.
“Cold hours are extremely important for the plants to rest and get a good night's sleep for three or four months and be ready to go,” he said.
Byne has been farming blueberries for over 40 years.
“I love the color blue. Most of the time I wear blue, my house is blue, my eyes are blue,” he said.
Everything looks cold and gloomy this time of year, but it’s an important part of the process for the following season. Every crop needs a certain number of cold hours. It helps them produce better fruit in the summer.
“For the last 10 years, we’ve gone into January concerned about our cold hours. We haven't received as many cold hours as we need,” he said.
These changes in temperatures and timing haven’t necessarily been good for farmers.
“We’ve lost our crop in 2007, in 2017, 2019 we probably lost 70% of the crop due to cold weather. It’s like somebody is going to lose their crop every year as the temperatures are starting to change and starting to move up from Florida all the way to Michigan,” Byne said.
These harsh, cold temperatures are happening late -- in March or April -- when plants have already begun to bloom.
“Sometimes you’ll have warm weather, maybe for about five or six days,” he explained. “It generates the energy to start producing blueberries and then all of a sudden you have a cold snap.”
Cold snaps can devastate the year’s produce.
“In 2007 we went down to 23 degrees and I knew then it was gone. And I kept thinking I worked so hard, and I’m not getting anything out of this.”
This is also the result of a changing warming season.
“The growing season is getting longer. We estimate probably about one week for every temperature increase of about one degree Fahrenheit,” explained Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist.
Over the past 20 years, she’s seen the number of chill hours go down and the growing season last longer.
“Over the last 100 years, the climate in the Southeast has not changed nearly as much as some other parts of the U.S. We call that the warming hole. But what we’ve seen is that temperatures are rising, just like everywhere else,” Knox said.
And if farmers turn a blind eye, it can impact their turnout for the year.
“If you change the amount of yield of blueberries or cotton or corn or something like that, it's going to affect your prices,” she said.
It’s something Byne is aware of.
“If temperatures are getting ready to change, you need to be ready to adapt,” he said. “It may very well change our varieties and what we choose in the future.”
For Byne, he’s watching the temperatures, but he also knows the importance of creating other revenue streams, just in case.
“That’s the reason I got into products too, because I wanted to be able to move every berry that comes off this farm,” he said.
Those products don’t always require a batch of perfect berries.
For now, as the plants lay dormant for the winter, Byne is preparing for the next season with any information he can find.
“I think as a farmer or in any business, you need to be looking at trends and what people are saying and don't turn a deaf ear to it because it could very well affect your future,” he said.