Grant helps Blueberry Growers

Published 3:47 am Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A USDA grant is making it possible for the Escambia Blueberry Growers organization to improve the packing process of this season’s blueberries.

Roger Templeton, who oversees the local blueberry packing facility, said the grant is being used to create a more profitable packaging division for the association of local growers.

“This grant is allowing us to create a room to help cool blueberries as they come in from the field,” Templeton said. “When they come in from the field they are hot and this new room will help us cool them down faster for packaging.”

Although the five or six season employees generally do well with packaging, Templeton said the newly renovated facility will help preserve berries making them more attractive to buyers.

“The way this has been done before was to take the berries into the cooler as soon as they come in,” Templeton said. “After they cooled down some they were brought back out into a hot room for packing. The berries would get condensation on them and when they get wet like that, it makes the berry break down and you end up with soft berries.”

The new process, Templeton said, will allow workers to pack more berries with less waste.

“Now we’ll be able to get the berries into a cool place to do the entire packing process without getting that condensation,” Templeton said.

“The faster we can cool them the better they will be. They will last longer and have a better taste. We don’t want to ship bad or soft berries. All of this means we will be able to ship better berries.”

Escambia Blueberry Growers President Tom McMillan said the $50,000 grant will allow workers to process a larger volume of berries.

“We already get a big volume and this will give us a staging will be in the same room where they are packing them,” McMillan said. “This will be a better environment for packing since it will help to cool them down even more.”

Workers have been preparing the 2,500 square foot room, which should be ready just in time for the beginning of the season, McMillan said.

“The work should be done soon,” McMillan said. “It should ready in a week or 10 days.”

Templeton said the work on the room, including walls, insulation and equipment, will be completed in time for the 2011 blueberry season to get the full benefit of the grant funds.

“We had set a deadline of May 1 to get the work done,” Templeton said. “We’ve got a little wiggle room if things done get completed by the deadline. The blueberry season actually begins around the third wee of May and goes until the last of July or the first of August.”

Templeton said the 2010 crop had workers processing several tons of berries to be shipped to buyers across the region.

“We processed about 52,000 pounds of berries last year,” Templeton said. “We hope to process about 80,000 pounds this year with the new packing facility.”

Templeton said the new facility will help to attract more farmers who are in need of packing services.

“Right now we process berries from about five different farmers,” Templeton said. “We are working to get a couple more farmers on board. The purpose of the grant was to allow us to create a better facility so more farmers would join the association.”

The $50,000 grant was administered through the State of Alabama from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.