Blueberries are one of the hot functional foods right now. A functional food is a healthy food that has healthful or disease preventing properties beyond its basic nutrients. Research has shown blueberries are good sources of antioxidants.

“The market demand for blueberries is increasing globally for a number of reasons,” says Elina Coneva, a fruit horticulturist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “Blueberries combine nutrient richness, antioxidant strength, evidence for health benefits and versatility for manufacturing an array of products.”

As demand for blueberries keeps increasing, Coneva, who is also an assistant professor at Auburn University, says so does the need for more people to grow them.

To promote both the production of blueberries and their nutritional value, specialists from Auburn University, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, North Carolina State University and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service collaborated to develop a new blueberry website www.eXtension.org/blueberries. The project is supported by a three-year, $518,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

“This website has several goals. But a primary goal is to introduce a new economic development opportunity for people,” said Natalie Hummel, LSU AgCenter Extension entomologist and the project leader for the new website.

It is part of the eXtension.org national website, which includes educational information on hundreds of topics posted by Extension specialists at land-grant universities across the country.

Production information

Visitors will find articles on how to grow blueberries, both conventionally and organically. Topics include site selection, soil testing, treating diseases, weeds, insect pests and much more.

The website has information on the health benefits of eating blueberries as well as how to select fresh berries, cook with them and preserve them through canning, freezing and drying. A recipe section includes salads, pies, drinks, muffins and even a blueberry soup.

“The site will be continually updated and added to,” Hummel said.

If viewers want to know something about blueberries they can’t find on the site, they can click on the “Ask an Expert” link found on every page and post their questions.

Most blueberry production in the United States is in the Northeast, but the No. 1 state in blueberry production is Michigan, which produced 99 million pounds in 2009. The South lags behind both the Midwest and the West, but the fastest growth in blueberry production is in the West and the South.

In 2009, blueberries were grown on nearly 320 acres in Alabama according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service and the gross farm value was $492,000, which is a 12.8 percent increase from 2000.

“Fresh, locally grown blueberries are available from mid-May through mid-July in south Alabama and from mid-June through late-July in north Alabama,” said Coneva, who serves as the project co-leader for the Auburn and the Alabama Extension team.

Specialists involved in the “All About Blueberry” Web resource development hope as a result of the new site more people will go into the blueberry-production business, and more people will eat more blueberries.