clintonnc.com

N.C. Blueberry Council open house, trade show draws record-breaking crowd

Lauren Williams Staff Writer

January 14, 2014

Hundreds of blueberry farmers from all across the state turned out for the first day of the North Carolina Blueberry Council’s annual open house and trade show, held Tuesday at the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center.


According to Julie Woodcock, executive coordinator of the N.C. Blueberry Council, close to 200 people pre-registered for this year’s 48th event; another 60 some registered Tuesday morning upon arrival.


“I’d say there’s between 280 and 300 (attendees),” she said, describing the number as “a record” for the event. Last year’s open house and trade show drew a crowd of approximately 250.


Presented in cooperation with North Carolina State University and the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, the open house and trade show kicked off Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. with a variety of 30 minute educational sessions being offered through noon.


“The education sessions are very important,” noted Woodcock earlier in the month as she made preparations for the event. “Most are about addressing concerns that the growers have.”


Katie Jennings, who works in North Carolina State University’s Horticultural Science department, was on hand Tuesday to address one of those many concerns — weeds.


Jennings shared that many blueberry growers are currently fighting two specific kinds of weeds — Smilax (also known as Greenbrier) and the Carolina Red Root. She explained that Smilax is “really challenging, really hard to control” due to its “extensive underground root system” and that the Carolina Red Root tends to flourish in the same climate and soil as blueberries. “It really feels at home in your blueberry fields.”


Jennings gave the farmers in attendance tips on how to best combat such weeds, stressing the importance of taking time to remove as much of the root systems as possible. She also assured them that she and others at N.C. State have plans to work on solving these weed-related problems, adding that she welcomed any feedback and suggestions that the growers might have.


According to Woodcock, this exchange of knowledge, experience, and ideas is one of the most important aspects of the event.


“This industry is changing and we need to stay ahead of the curve,” she stressed previously. “It’s competitive not only with other states but also with other countries. We need to have a healthy, delicious product and that takes education and the sharing of knowledge.”


Information provided by Woodcock earlier this month from the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows just how fast the blueberry industry is growing and how it’s become big business for North Carolina, particularly for Bladen, Pender, Sampson, Duplin, and Columbus counties, the state’s top ranking counties in terms of blueberry production.


“Statewide the value of blueberries exceeds $70 million annually,” she shared, adding that approximately 6,000 acres in in the state are under blueberry cultivation. On those 6,000 acres, there are approximately 1,700 blueberry plants per acre, each yielding approximately 6,000 berries.


With so many high-producing blueberry growers in the state, many businesses and manufacturers have taken notice and have become regulars at the event’s trade show.


This year’s trade show, held from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, featured such sponsors and vendors as Clinton Truck and Tractor, Crumpler Plastic Pipe, First Citizens Bank, Pro Ag, Coastal AgroBusiness, Nash Equipment, Pender County Farm Bureau, Meherrin Ag Chem, Cape Fear Farm Credit, Pratt Industries, Tri-State Distributors, Fall Creek Farm and Nursery, Keyplex, Acadian Seaplants, Gourmet Trading Company, A&B Packing Equipment, American Blueberries, LLC., Atlantic Coast Toyotalift, BBC Technologies, BEI International, Carolina Blueberry Co-op, and many more.


Amie Cavenaugh-Eakins, a representative with the Wyatt-Quarles Seed Company based out of Garner, has been coming to the open house and trade show for nine years and called the event one that helps foster “a mutually beneficial relationship” between vendors and growers.


“It’s hard to get out to see the growers because they’re always out in the field. Most of the time I just talk with them on the phone,” she said, “so it’s good to come here and put a face with the name.


“We’re always seeing new faces too and it’s nice when those new faces become familiar faces,” she continued. “I really enjoy working with the blueberry growers. They’re a great group, lots of down-to-earth people. And all the growers are so smart. It’s really interesting to hear about all their different techniques.”


Fellow vendor Todd Robinson traveled all the way from Athens, Tennessee with the Athens Plow Company for the fourth year now to talk once again with the blueberry growers in North Carolina.


“For us, it’s targeted marketing. The end user is here, and I really enjoy talking to all the guys who buy our equipment,” he pointed out, mentioning that the special blueberry disc on display in the Athens Plow Company booth was designed after gathering input and advice from 10 different North Carolina blueberry farmers.


“It’s good timing (for the event) since they (the growers) are not out working in the field right now, and it’s well worth the time and money for us. I mean, 50 of the biggest growers are right here,” he continued, describing the state’s blueberry farmers “like a big family.”


For those in the blueberry business, joining in on the annual family-like reunion is “a good investment,” shared Woodcock, referring to the $55 fee for admission and Tuesday’s catered lunch. “It’s a great time for these individuals to network.”


The event continues today with the trade show opening again from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., a few more educational sessions — “Blueberry Cultivar Evaluations: What Will You Be Planting?” and “Progress at the NCSU Horticultural Crops Research Station” — will be held, and the results of the door prizes and silent auction will be shared around 11 a.m. Last on the agenda, pesticide safety training will be offered from 1 to 3 p.m.


For more information about the N.C. Blueberry Council, please contact Julie Woodcock at 910-471-3193 or via email at ncblueberry@bellsouth.net. Also visit http://ncblueberrycouncil.org.


Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 117 or via email at lwilliams@civitasmedia.com.