Apr 7, 2007
There’s Blueberry Production Potential in China

China is quickly reforming its economy to encourage entrepreneurial activity and exports. With the strong international demand for blueberries, it is no surprise that the Chinese are considering blueberries as a new crop.

That’s according to Eric Hanson, Michigan State University small fruits horticulturist. He visited northern China in 2004 and talked about his observations during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Although total acreage in China is still small, perhaps only 400 to 600 acres, he said, interest is high, research is under way and good blueberry land is available. Much like the United States, soils and climate in China vary, so rabbiteyes, southern and northern highbush and lowbush varieties will all fit in somewhere.

Expansion of acreage in northern areas will likely occur at modest rates, since consistency of yields needs to be demonstrated in the harsh winter locations, Hanson said. Rabbiteye and southern highbush blueberries in southern China appear poised to develop more rapidly.

A critical issue for U.S. producers is exports.

“An optimistic view is that domestic demand for blueberries will grow as the affluent population expands, and China could consume much of its domestic production and perhaps become an important market for U.S. blueberries,” he said. “China imported a few million pounds of U.S. blueberries in 2004. I think a more realistic assumption is that Chinese production will grow at a moderate rate, and that frozen and processed blueberries from China will gradually impact international markets.”

The Chinese are likely to export to Japan, which now uses 10 to 14 million pounds of U.S.-produced blueberries a year, he said.

Jilin Province, just north of North Korea, is the most northerly area of China being considered for blueberry production. Winters are very severe, with minimum temperatures of minus 40˚F.

Work began at Jilin Agricultural University in the early 1980s to introduce blueberries. Only lowbush and hardy half-high varieties are recommended, but winter injury is still a problem, Hanson said.

Liaoning Province, northeast of Beijing and bordering North Korea, had an estimated 35 acres of blueberries in the ground in 2004. A researcher at Dalian Institute of Technology believes a 60- by 120-mile area between the cities of Dalian and Dandung is suited to blueberries, Hanson said.

“Typical soils are acidic (pH 5.5 to 6.5), and although not as sandy as traditional areas in Michigan or New Jersey, they appear adequately drained for blueberries,” he said. “Well water is slightly acidic and plentiful.

“Winter injury is the greatest obstacle to growing blueberries here. Although minimum winter temperatures are not excessively low (minus 15˚F once in five years), the combination of cold, low humidity, strong winds, and open soils results in severe injury to even the hardiest highbush and half-high varieties.”

Professionals and growers in this area have extensive horticultural skills, he said. They grow other small fruit crops, including more than 20,000 acres of strawberries, and some growers use greenhouses. The region has an extensive food processing and storage infrastructure developed for seafood and agricultural commodities that could accommodate blueberries. Japanese investors have built freezing facilities in the city of Dandung for bulk and IQF freezing.

Shandong Province, on the coast southeast of Beijing, is estimated to have about 50 acres of planted blueberries. This region has a moderated climate and produces huge quantities of tree fruits and grapes, Hanson said. The frost-free season is 250 days. There are no reports of winter injury to northern highbush or even rabbiteye varieties that have been tested. Soils typically are higher in pH and clay content.

Blueberries are being tested and commercially planted in some lower latitude, humid provinces of China, where climate is similar to the Southeastern U.S.

There are apparently vast areas of acidic soils in these provinces, but most appear to be heavier textured soils with high clay content, Hanson said. Rabbiteye and some southern highbush cultivars are being tried in these areas.

The cost of agricultural labor in China is about $3 a day, or 5 percent of that in the United States. As a result, practices such as burying canes for winter protection and hand weeding, which are cost prohibitive elsewhere, are economical in China. Low labor costs also allow for hand harvesting and sorting, so growers need not invest in mechanization.

Prices of some conventional agricultural chemicals and fertilizers appear to be similar to or lower than those in the United States. Blueberry plants are being sold to farmers for less than half the U.S. price, Hanson said.

Because most traditional field crops offer low returns, farmers have keen interest in alternatives, even if returns are modest by U.S. standards. A gross income of $1,200 per acre would attract many farmers to blueberries, one researcher said, since the cost to establish a planting is only about $600 an acre and production costs are perhaps 20 percent of those in the United States.

He noted that fresh blueberries from Chile are sold in urban grocery stores for $2.50 a pint and expects significant volumes of domestic fresh blueberries could be sold for $1 a pound. Even low yields might make blueberries attractive.

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