Johnny Morgan, Himelrick, David G., Gill, Daniel J., Roy, Heli J.
With improved health on the minds of many Americans, right now is a good time to discover how important blueberries are in maintaining good health, according to LSU AgCenter nutrition specialist Heli Roy.
“Foods with a lot of color also have high levels of anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that help keep us healthy,” Roy said.
These antioxidants help the body by keeping blood vessels strong, killing cancer cells, regulating glucose and insulin values and killing different microbes in the intestinal tract, Roy explained.
“Years ago when we talked about fruits, we mainly talked about the number of calories they had, but today we know more about what are called phytochemicals, which are these strong antioxidants found in blueberries,” she said. “So we know they are much better for us than we knew 20-30 years ago.”
Another reason blueberries are important is their ability to neutralize free radicals in the body.
“Free radicals are highly reactive compounds in our body, and we produce them all the time. When we breathe, oxygen is inhaled and carbon dioxide is exhaled,” Roy said. “During the process, free radicals are produced. They are produced excessively when you smoke or drink or by radiation like from the sun.”
Blueberries are capable of neutralizing these free radicals and prevent their damage.
“What happens as we age is that we go through a sort of ‘rusting’ effect,” Roy said. “Antioxidants in blueberries help prevent us from rusting.”
Minimizing free radicals is a good thing because they react with everything, whether proteins, fat or carbohydrates, and the reaction is usually bad, Roy said.
Living in Louisiana makes it easy to receive the benefits that blueberries offer because they grow well here, according to LSU AgCenter horticulturist Dan Gill.
“Blueberries are one of the easiest of the home-fruiting plants to grow in Louisiana,” Gill said. “They require very low maintenance. About all they need is acid soil with good drainage.”
The ideal planting time for blueberries in Louisiana is during the cool months from October through about March. The plants are cold tolerant and are not affected by Louisiana winter weather.
It is best to plant more than one variety. They cross-pollinate, which means more fruit that also are larger.
“Often nurseries will have plants in three-to-five gallon containers nearly large enough to start producing,” Gill said. “Growers don’t like to hear me say this, but we recommend taking off fruit the first year, so there is not as much stress on the plant.”
The second year, the plant will be stronger, and all of the fruit will be available for jellies, jams, pies, muffins or just as a fresh snack, Gill said.
Blueberries have gotten good press over the past 10 years, mainly because people know about antioxidants and how good they are for you, LSU AgCenter fruit crops specialist David Himelrick said.
“There are basically three different varieties of blueberries grown in the state, which provides three picking seasons. The first varieties are beginning to be harvested now,” Himelrick said. “They come in three waves here – early June, early July and early August.”
If you’re thinking about growing blueberries on a commercial basis, Himelrick said marketing and harvest are two major considerations.
“Harvesting is the real bottleneck in my opinion,” Himelrick said. “The berries are small, so they are labor intensive. You almost have to be part of a cooperative to get custom harvesting done.”
Blueberries are grown all over the state, but the big commercial marketing groups are either in Texas or Mississippi. So growers close to these states have an advantage.
“We recommend you have your market before you plant your crop,” Himelrick said. “The choices are u-pick operations, mechanical harvesting or custom harvesting.”
Blueberries are a long-term investment -- you can’t change varieties every year. The plants will live as long as people if you take care of them, Himelrick explained.
Despite the lack of rain this year, some blueberry growers are picking a good crop of berries.
Adam Aucoin, of St. Francisville, has a 26-year-old stand of 80 bushes on one acre.
“I have a good crop because with the age of my trees,” Aucoin said. “My trees have established roots, and they have been able to tolerate the drought better than younger trees would.”
Aucoin sells his blueberries to restaurants and to individuals through his u-pick operation by appointment.
This year Aucoin signed on to Louisiana MarketMaker, the LSU AgCenter’s online interactive marketing system that puts consumers in touch with producers across the country.
“I’ve been looking at new markets because many of the farmers markets have become saturated with blueberries, Aucoin said.
Some other blueberry growers are having a tougher time with the dry conditions. Cliff Muller of Ethel has had to irrigate his crop.
“I’ve been pumping 5,200 gallons of water per hour for the past six days,” Muller said. “Out of all those years, this is my first time having to irrigate.”
Muller, who has been in the business for the past 22 years, said he has never seen this much drought stress.
His two-acre, pick-your-own operation is slated to open Saturday June 4.
“We will be open Thursday through Saturday for probably the next six weeks or until the berries are gone,” Muller said.
He also signed on to Louisiana MarketMaker to give his farm more visibility.
For additional information on Louisiana MarketMaker visit the LSU AgCenter website at www.LSU AgCenter.com.