Blueberry growers worry about pine bark shortage


Farmhand James Davison spreads pine bark mulch, less available for a variety of reasons, with one grower blaming the biomass plant, as it is needed to grow blueberries in sandy soil, including the blueberries growing at Straughn Farms-Archer, Wednesday, July 23, 2014 in Archer, Fla.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, July 24, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at 7:33 p.m.

Alachua County now leads all other Florida counties in the number of acres used to raise blueberries, but some local growers say this blossoming field is threatened by a shrinking supply of a key ingredient: pine bark.

Limestone in this part of Florida leaves the soil too alkaline for blueberries, so growers have relied on layers of pine bark to lower the pH.

“Everybody in Florida for the last 15 years has basically made beds of pine bark on top of the ground and planted directly into the pine bark,” said Bill Braswell, the former president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association.

A shortage of the bark has left some scrambling to find a supplier with enough to sell, he said.

But the reasons for the shortage — and the question of whether there is a shortage — differ among growers and suppliers.

Some cite the unusually rainy weather this year or the higher demand caused by an increasing number of growers. Others, like Braswell, blame Gainesville’s biomass plant. He said he noticed a difference in supply soon after the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center plant came online in December.

Georgia-Pacific, a national paper manufacturer with a location in Palatka, was a major supplier of mulch to farmers but has stopped selling it since the city’s new biomass plant came online, Braswell said. Georgia-Pacific’s media representatives did not respond to calls or messages left by The Sun.

The biomass plant will consume approximately 1 million tons of waste wood per year to meet the energy demands of Gainesville Regional Utilities, but it has not received a pine bark shipment in more than three months, said GREC spokesman John Brushwood.

“Seventy percent comes from the waste product commercial tree farms produce when prepping their site to replant. Another 25 percent comes from tree surgeons and municipal waste, such as cities or counties trimming trees from power lines and roads. There is a small amount of saw and pulp mill residue somewhere in the 5 percent range, however most of this is sawdust,” Brushwood wrote in an email.

Braswell, however, is not convinced, saying the plant’s consumption of biomass is drying wood chip suppliers out, causing them to keep their pine bark rather than sell it.

Bill Gaston, owner of Gaston Wood Recovery, supplies biomass to the plant. Gaston said it wouldn’t make sense to sell pine bark as a fuel source because it is more suitable for landscaping.

Gaston also owns Griffis Lumber, a landscape supplier, and said he hasn’t had any trouble obtaining the bark. He said it’s common for the supply to be lower during the “spring time rush,” or the two to three weeks he labels as landscaping season.

On the other hand, Jeff Wofford, owner of pine bark supplying company First Coast Forest Products, said its availability has significantly diminished since the biomass plant came online. But he attributes the apparent shortage to other factors.

The increasing amount of rainfall makes it difficult for loggers to reach areas of land that are scheduled for harvesting. The demand for bark is also higher than usual, Wofford said, because of an influx of new blueberry farms.

“You put all those three things together, and it’s just a really difficult time right now to get a lot of pine bark,” he said. “It’s a three-pronged issue. (The pine bark) is going somewhere.”

Tim Logan, farm manager at Island Grove Ag Products, agrees that there are a combination of factors affecting the supply: weather, demand and competition.

Logan and Tom Paulling, general manager at Straughn Farms, have similar plans when it comes to planting in the future. Any goals to expand need to be planned out carefully, Paulling said.

“What we try to do is plan ahead and try not to overestimate what we can do,” Logan said.

Alachua County is the leading county in blueberry acreage in Florida, followed by Polk and Hillsborough counties, according to the 2012 agricultural census data.

Braswell said there are at least 30 blueberry farms in the county, and about 600 new acres are added each year.

To start a new farm, a grower typically needs about five truckloads of pine bark per acre. Every three years an existing farm must reapply the bark, which requires about 1 truckloads per acre. A truckload is about 90 yards.

Braswell said he is now experimenting with yard waste; anything ranging from palm to cypress trees, but his expectations are low. In the past, nothing has worked as well as pine bark.

“Until someone can figure out a way to (plant blueberries) without pine bark, the industry is kind of on a hold right now.”

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