For a state nicknamed “the peach state,” it’s hard to imagine Georgia being known for anything else. With “peach” tacked onto the beginning of road and city, Georgia’s official state fruit is the pride and joy of farmers and peach-lovers alike.
However, over the years, another fruit rose to prominence in Georgia: the blueberry. In 2014, Georgia was the No. 1 producer of blueberries in the country, due in part to the research of Scott NeSmith and his collaboration with the University of Georgia.
NeSmith, a horticulture professor at the UGA Griffin Campus, began his work with agriculture as a plant scientist, and he has been working with UGA since 1990. In 1998, he took over the blueberry breeding program.
“One of the reasons I got into agriculture and agricultural research is hopefully you can be involved with people that are in agriculture and try to make a difference in their daily lives,” NeSmith said. “Through everybody’s effort, it’s made quite a big impact throughout the state.”
Under NeSmith’s leadership over the past two decades, 16 commercial varieties and five ornamental varieties have been released. Due to the continuous research and testing for each variety, the blueberries require up to 10-12 years to develop. Several scientists on his team monitor different aspects of the blueberries, including plant diseases, insect management and weed control.
The blueberry growing season in Georgia begins in April and ends in July. However, each variety only lasts between two to three weeks, requiring multiple varieties to sustain the entire growing season for farmers.
“One of the things we’ve always been trying to do is help Georgia blueberry farmers have alternate crops,” NeSmith said. “Once the industry started, we’ve just been trying to provide them better and better blueberry varieties through breeding.”
While the majority of blueberry varieties are developed for farmers and consumption, the ornamental blueberries NeSmith breeds are marketed for homeowners.
Shelley Fincher, the plant licensing manager of Innovation Gateway, which provides resources for UGA researchers to license their inventions and form startup companies, works closely with NeSmith’s projects. She said initially, the ornamental varieties were a product of trial and error. Through NeSmith’s efforts, he was able to target another audience for home and yard décor.
“He went from traditional, berry producing breeder to working with ornamental companies — just having that innovative streak in him,” Fincher said. “The ornamental industry didn’t know that they were missing out with blueberries, so it was kind of neat to watch him market his ornamentals.”
From the beginning of NeSmith’s leadership, Georgia’s blueberry production has expanded from approximately 3,000 acres to 27,000 acres as of 2017. His blueberry varieties can be found on every continent, excluding Antarctica, in climates similar to south Georgia.
Brent Marable, the assistant director of plant licensing in Innovation Gateway, said NeSmith’s devotion in serving the farmers of Georgia and around the world attests to the quality and success of his blueberries.
“I would call [NeSmith] very industry friendly as well as far as listening to the industry to see what they want and then responding with finding that for them,” Marable said. “He’s just gotten to know the farmers really well, listens to them, responds to their needs, and he visits them throughout the year.”
In 1999, NeSmith received the D.W. Brooks Award for Excellence in Research for his role in increasing blueberry yields in Georgia. In 2013, NeSmith was awarded Innovation Gateway’s Inventor of the Year Award for his contributions to UGA Research. Ultimately, while these accolades serve as a testament to NeSmith’s commitment to refining his craft, his primary motivation stems from helping the farmers in Georgia and around the world.
“The motivation is you’re trying to help Georgia growers, even others around the world we work with, stay comparative,” NeSmith said. “We hope all along that we can keep making improvements in the varieties of these different traits, consumer enjoyment of the product, having the yield and so forth — it makes farmers money.”