'U.S. blueberry farming practices need to evolve', says Giant Berry Farms
With U.S. and Canadian annual blueberry production likely to surpass one billion pounds in the next few years, one of the region's biggest marketers has said the sector 'needs to evolve', addressing such issues as labor shortages, new export markets, and a recent trend of 'disastrously low' summer prices.
A representative of California Giant Berry Farms said North America's planted acreage had grown by an average of 20% every year since 2008.
"That's massive incremental growth," said the company's director of operations for the North American blueberry division Evan Pence, speaking at the recent International Blueberry Seminar, held near the Chilean capital Santiago
"It's happening fast, and as an industry we're trying to be nimble, we're trying to adjust to it, adapt to it, and open new export markets."
U.S. and Canadian acreage has increased from 71,000 in 2005 to 125,000 acres today, and Pence said it was reasonable to assume highbush production would jump up from the current 680 million pounds to one billion 'within the next five to 10 years'.
Pence went on to say although U.S. blueberry consumption was 'magnificent', retailers had to do more to promote the product during important times of the year.
He said limited retail promotion activity throughout this summer, combined with a mild winter that brought the harvest forward two weeks resulting in higher volumes than usual in May, meant prices had plummeted during July, as they did in 2013.
"July for the last two years in the United States has been a disaster. An absolute disaster for producers. To have it happen to us for two consecutive years, it worries us," Pence said, adding many growers had struggled to break even during that peak production month.
Family farmers are often the ones hit hardest by low prices during key production times, since they don't have the luxury of several varieties to pick throughout the season to weather the market fluctuations.
"A guy who grows 40 acres of Duke in Oregon gets to harvest twice, and he is subject to that price that day. It's hard for him, it's very difficult," Pence said.
'Not good at exporting fruit'
According to the operations director, many retailers were opting to promote non-year-round commodities like stonefruit at the expense of blueberries.
"When we have a year round commodity…we depend on retailers to do heavy promotions in the summer when we do peak production - principally in July," Pence said
"What we saw this year was interesting to say the least. We saw a little bit of decreased movement, what we assumed to be a little a little bit of a lack of promotion of the crop, and a little bit of fatigue at the retail level at going out and doing promotions."
He said that international trade was one key area the North America blueberry industry would have to develop to avoid being at the mercy of low domestic prices.
"It's extremely important to how we survive... so when new markets open for us like South Korea we are very excited," he said.
"We have to learn how to export fruit - we're not good at it. We've never had to be. Some of us are better than others."
Along with pushing for strong retail promotions and becoming less dependant on the domestic markets, Pence said the North American blueberry industry needed to address other challenges like labor shortages, pest pressures, and increasing food safety requirements.
"Labor availability is tightening in all regions, especially in the northern regions," he said.
"We rely heavily on hand-harvested labor, which in the United States depends heavily on Mexican labor. So in the northern regions we don't see a large availability of harvest labor. It's very difficult.
"The farmers in that region are at the mercy of labor contractors. For that reason we're looking to mechanize."
Operational costs are also on the up due to the prevalence of the vinegar fly spotted-wing Drosophila throughout many parts of North America, which is an 'immense problem right now'.
On top of that, the key requirements of food safety and traceability are 'coming down really hard' from the retail level and getting passed onto growers, at the same time that the number of separate retailers to work with is actually going down.
"The larger marketers keep getting larger. Interestingly enough the supermarkets keep buying each other, and now there's less supermarkets to sell to," Pence said.
"Everthing's consolidating and the larger marketers inside of the United States have been increasing acreage in every region and continuing to grow their programs."
Pence explained that despite the many problems faced by the blueberry industry, in South and well as North America, producers could meet the soaring worldwide demand and flourish doing so, but the sector had to adapt.
"Consumption and demand are increasing globally, meaning that our varieties and farming practices need to evolve," he said.
"That's why I think communication between you [Chile] and us in the United States is paramount."
U.S. and Chile - 'complementary bodies'
Pence praised the Chilean blueberry industry as an essential partner of the U.S., as it is one of the biggest exporters to fill the supply gap during the Northern Hemisphere winter months.
With U.S. and Canadian production currently around 680 million pounds annually, consumption has already reached one billion.
"We are complementary bodies. In th United States, one of the great things about being a producer is that we have blueberries in the supermarkets 365 days a year. If there is a day when there are not blueberries in the supermarket, we've failed," he said.
"We actively look to put blueberries in the supermarkets on the shelves because we are huge consumers of blueberries.
"In order for us to live in the same realm in those shelves together, we have to understand your history, your problems, your success, the things that challenge you - like methyl bromide fumigation. But you also have to understand our challenges, our successes, our problems. We also battle several issues that we probably share in common."
Photo: Wikimedia Commons