Over the last century, blueberries have become a staple in the produce aisle of grocery stores as consumption has skyrocketed. Millions of people worldwide are particularly drawn to the health benefits associated with the fruit, as well as its flavor.
Later this month, leaders of the global blueberry industry will meet in Richmond, Vancouver, B.C., for the International Blueberry Organization (IBO) Summit. The event will bring together experts to discuss the biggest opportunities and challenges for the industry worldwide.
In advance of the Summit, industry pioneer Dave Brazelton, founder and chair of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery, Inc., shared his insights on the more recent history of the blueberry industry’s global boom and some perspective on where it may be headed next.
Improved horticultural practices
Speaking on the progress the industry has made, Brazelton commented: "We have seen major advances in horticultural management, variety development, in packing, as well as increased consumption demand - much of it driven by the growing awareness of the health benefits of blueberries."
He explained that, with new varieties and horticultural management practices, the industry has benefitted in another way. There is now an expanded number of production areas and a more steady supply in the market.
"This has helped to make blueberries more available year-round," he added.
Increased shelf life and new growing methods
Beyond a more steady supply, he spoke on advances that have lengthened the category's shelf life.
He pointed to new varieties and improved cooling and shipping practices as factors that have "significantly" improved this.
What's more, they have also helped extend the range of where and when the fruit can be sold.
"Another milestone leap we have been excited to be involved in has been substrate growing," he added.
Indeed, the idea of growing them commercially on a large scale in containers instead of in pots is relatively new.
"Substrate growing, combined with advances from the last 20 years, is changing the way blueberries are grown.
"For this next year, a substantial portion of the new acreage will be planted in substrate," Brazelton explained.
He elaborated how these changes have improved availability on an intercontinental level.
"These advances, plus others, have paved the way for extending the regions of the world where they can now be grown, resulting in availability year-round. Quality, yields, and efficiencies are all improving."
To him, there are numerous possibilities for how different growing techniques could be adapted for the category in the future.
"I’m excited to watch over the next decade to see if blueberries go the way of tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers, if they’ll move to climate-controlled greenhouses.
"I’m interested to see how far we can go with genetics and great, consistent flavors that consumers really want to eat, and what growing systems we’ll use to get there."
Technological advances could especially change the methods growers use, he said.
"I believe the world of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will transform how we harvest, sort and pack blueberries. I don’t see one way of harvesting, but many. Mechanization and efficiency breakthroughs will come for sure."
Future blueberry packaging solutions
When it comes to moving forward in a world that's growing increasingly environmentally conscious, Brazelton emphasized the importance of eco-friendly packaging solutions.
"Plastic is wearing out its welcome. In my opinion, we absolutely must find an environmentally friendly packaging material with all the consumer advantages of the clamshell but that is more sustainable.
"We’re addicted to plastic in this world. Many people are working on it and know it’s an issue."
He said he believed the industry would also see an increase in packaging size.
"I see the industry moving away from small containers and moving to more uniform large containers so blueberries will be available in the world’s kitchens every day of the week.
Blueberries' "premium position" as a healthy food
Acknowledging how the category has come to be linked with the idea of wellness, Brazelton said: "the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council has invested over US$7 million in research exploring and documenting the health benefits of blueberries.
"Collaborating with world-leading researchers at exceptional research institutions and supporting the best independent research has been the key to blueberries continuing to hold a premium position as a healthy food. And exciting health results keep coming."
This phenomenon hasn't been limited to one country either.
He elaborated: "Public interest has spread well beyond the U.S. In many areas where people are not familiar with highbush blueberries, they try them because they have heard of the health benefits."
Considering the possibilities of the relationship between blueberries and health-consciousness, Brazelton was optimistic.
He noted: "I think we’ll continue to discover and document more health benefits as we get more sophisticated tools and learn more, especially as health care becomes individualized. Blueberries will fit into that future really well."
According to him, this reflects the societal trend of seeking health solutions apart from modern medications.
"'Functional foods' will continue to move mainstream into the medical community’s strategy. The medical community is looking beyond medications and procedures for improving human health. Lifestyle matters and holistic medicine is more popular.
"The nutritive makeup of blueberries is a good fit for a healthy lifestyle and people will eat them because they taste good."
How the industry can improve
Regarding how actors can make sure their products penetrate a greater range of markets, he explained: "We need more innovation beyond fresh products because not everywhere in the world has reliable and abundant cold chain.
"New technologies will be developed that will lead to innovative shelf-stable products."
A further development he deemed necessary is on the genetics side of things.
"We will also see breakthroughs in new blueberry genetics. This is an area that Fall Creek is investing in heavily. Blueberries are not as consistent in their quality as other products. We are getting better, but inconsistency is becoming a barrier to real growth."
Noting how the blueberry industry could learn from other categories' successes, he commented: "The apple and banana industries have improved fruit consistency in recent years; table grapes are getting there too.
"Blueberries need to follow suit and then we’ll see some big jumps in consumption. So, the industry still has a bright global future."
Final advice for industry players
When asked what advice he had for current blueberry growers or new entrants to the industry, Brazelton spoke on bettering export opportunities and learning about the advances being made internationally.
Regarding a renewed focus on export, he noted this could be particularly advantageous for the Pacific Northwest. After all, this area is one of North America's major supplying regions.
"During the 2018 summer period, the Pacific Northwest supplied more than 70% of the fresh berries consumed in the U.S. and Canada. These are impressive numbers, but the Northwest industry needs to develop a greater export market, especially for processed berries."
To do this, he said he would urge greater collaboration among growers, packers and sellers to address the challenges and complexities of export.
As for actors who are newly apart of the industry, he elaborated on the importance of learning not just the approaches that are locally used, but also those utilized in other regions.
"For new growers anywhere, I would urge them to travel and learn about the incredible innovations that are taking place in blueberries. Every grower, new or old, can learn and improve their positioning.
"A commitment to travel throughout the world might cost as much as a late model used car but would pay amazing benefits."
According to him, there is no better place to start than the upcoming IBO Summit.
Here, he explained, industry actors will be able to "meet growers from around the world. Invite them to your operation. They will do the same."
In conclusion, he said: "The industry is changing, and like the last 40 years, great innovations are coming from all around the blueberry world."
With so much to gain as the industry continues to progress, Brazelton remarked: "I honestly feel our best days are before us."