Luis Monterde, 75, of B&M Blueberry Farm in Lumberton was one of the first farmers in Mississippi to grow blueberries commercially. Working closely with researchers at Mississippi State University’s (MSU) South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville, Luis helped to pioneer the state’s blueberry industry.
“One day a perfect stranger approached me and asked if I had ever thought of growing blueberries,” he says. “I thought why not? And so it began.”
Under the guidance of Dr. John Braswell and Dr. Jim Spiers (both now retired), Luis planted his first 20 bushes in 1980. He says he had berries the second year, which he ate. When he had 600 bushes that were producing berries, he says he started making money.
“It is a slow process with blueberries,” he says. “The bushes are expensive to buy, and it takes two or three years before they are mature enough to produce fruit. We planted Rabbiteye blueberries in the beginning, and I grow that type of blueberry still today.”
Southern Highbush is another type of blueberry grown commercially in Mississippi.
In the beginning, Luis marketed his berries locally. Now, his berries are sold through the Miss-Lou Blueberry Growers Cooperative across the nation and as far away as Canada. Luis was instrumental in helping to form the cooperative and in working to gain markets for Mississippi blueberries. Miss-Lou has18 growers from Louisiana and Mississippi. Most of the co-op growers today are Mississippi farmers.
When everything is going well, the blueberry packing facility in Purvis packages 1 million-plus pounds of berries a year. Fresh berries are packaged in pint containers, and frozen berries are packaged in 30-pound boxes. The packing center, which was built in the early 1980s, has doubled in size through the years and currently has three coolers and one large loading dock.
“We start harvesting in the middle of May and finish up the first part of July,” he said. “We have 20,000 bushes here in Lamar County alone, but we serve other counties all the way to north of Jackson.”
In 2014, according to figures from Mississippi State University, the state’s volume of blueberry production was estimated at 8.55 million pounds. This volume was determined by multiplying the area harvested (2,100 acres) by the average yield per acre (4,070 pounds per acre). The average price for blueberries (fresh and processed) in Mississippi that year was $1.15 per pound, resulting in an average total value of production of about $10.07 million.
Most of Mississippi’s blueberry production is concentrated in the southern counties.
Luis says the single biggest challenge for Mississippi blueberry growers is finding and keeping reliable labor. After the 2017 season, he says he will use 100 percent mechanical harvesting.
Economies of scale is another big issue. Luis says Mississippi used to have over 200 blueberry growers. Today, there are maybe 100 growers. He says small growers can’t survive if they can’t afford to buy the necessary equipment. Therefore, the industry now has less growers with more acres.
At times, the weather can also be a challenge.
“This year, was one of the worst years for blueberries,” Luis says. “The weather decides how well our crop will do each year. This year, in this region of the state, we had too much rain.”
Luis was invited to serve on the board of directors of Lamar County Farm Bureau by veteran volunteer leader, Carly Parker. He has been a dedicated county board member for many years. He is a past vice president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) Horticulture Commodity Advisory Committee and presently serves on the MFBF Labor Committee. Luis and the Purvis packing shed provided American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall with a look at the state’s blueberry industry when he visited Mississippi this summer.
Luis is a past president of the Miss-Lou Blueberry Growers Cooperative, and at one time, sat on the United States Highbush Blueberry Council, serving on the Industry Relations Committee. He served for eight years on the board of directors of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation.
“Farm Bureau has definitely helped the blueberry industry. It has tried to solve specific issues that have impacted our growers,” he says. “Former Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell also helped the industry tremendously. He took a personal interest because he grew blueberries and had a pick-your-own operation. I also want to thank Mississippi State University and Dr. Juan Silva for their help with the industry. We have a very positive and constant relationship with the MSU Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion program.”
Luis sees a bright future for blueberry production in our state. He says Mississippi’s blueberry industry is in very capable hands.