Dec 30, 2011
Catch the worldwide blueberry wave

A “blue wave” of blueberries is rapidly approaching, and the industry has to find ways to increase consumption, said Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC). He spoke during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Mich.

From 1995 to 2010, world blueberry acreage increased from more than 50,000 acres to nearly 190,000 acres. Most of the growth took place in North America and South America, but other regions of the world also expanded their plantings, he said.

Significant growth in worldwide highbush blueberry production is expected to continue over the next few years, moving from 400 million pounds in 2005 to 1.4 billion pounds by 2015, Villata said.

North America accounted for about 57 percent of the world’s highbush blueberry acreage in 2010, followed by South America at 23 percent and Europe at 11 percent. Asia, the Pacific region, Africa and the Mediterranean region accounted for the rest, according to Villata.

From 1995 to 2010, North America’s highbush acreage grew from 71,025 to 110,290. The western region of the continent lead the growth, with a 90 percent increase in acreage since 2005. British Columbia has the most acres in the western region, with about 21,020 in 2010. The states of Washington, Oregon and California have roughly that many acres combined, according to Villata.

Michigan remains the U.S. state with the most blueberry acres, with an estimated 22,750 in 2010. Georgia was No. 2, with 12,800 acres, he said.

Mexico and Central America remain far behind the United States and Canada, but their blueberry acreage has increased nearly nine-fold since 2005, moving from 180 acres to about 1,672 in 2010, Villata said.

Chile leads the way in South America, accounting for 73 percent of the continent’s blueberry acreage in 2010 (32,250 acres), followed by Argentina (9,500 acres), Uruguay (1,850 acres), Brazil (300 acres), Peru (80 acres) and Colombia (20 acres). Production is on the rise in South America, increasing from 115 million pounds in 2008 to 153 million pounds in 2010. With young plantings in place, that number is expected to increase in the coming years, Villata said.

European highbush blueberry acreage increased five-fold from 1995 to 2010, from 4,000 acres to nearly 21,000 acres. Poland, Germany and Spain lead the way in Europe, with 7,800 acres, 5,300 acres and 2,600 acres, respectively, in 2010. Total European production increased from an estimated 56 million pounds in 2008 to 81 million pounds in 2010, according to Villata.

Given such growth, the blueberry industry needs to attract new consumers across the globe and significantly increase per capita consumption by 2015. There are opportunities to do so. Despite North America’s huge share in blueberry production, some of its markets remain underdeveloped. There also are excellent market prospects in China, India and South Korea, he said.

Blueberries continue to be a key ingredient in new product development and their “health halo” continues to drive purchases. The key is to design and implement market promotions that leverage the blueberry’s healthful reputation. Villata was optimistic about the prospects.

“I think we can surf that wave for a long time to come.”
To see some of USHBC’s latest marketing efforts, visit www.littlebluedynamos.com.

China

After Villata spoke, Mark Longstroth, Michigan State University Extension educator, detailed the growth of the Chinese blueberry industry.

A national effort to develop high-value agriculture production has spurred widespread blueberry plantings in China. Because of that, many Michigan blueberry growers worry about a glut of cheap Chinese berries flooding the U.S. market one day. A significant portion of Chinese blueberries are already exported to other Asian countries, Longstroth said.

China has a population of 1.3 billion people, 400 million of whom have incomes similar to those in the United States. Domestic blueberry consumption is increasing. The primary market for fresh berries is the capital city, Beijing, but that market is expanding. There is a growing market for processed products, too, including juices and nutritional supplements, Longstroth said.

The Chinese industry is still in its infancy, however, struggling to produce blueberries and deliver them to market. Winter cold injury and monsoon rains can cause significant losses. Many speculative plantings have been planted in poor sites. Timely harvest labor is a problem, too, as well as transporting berries from the countryside to major cities. The Chinese industry’s transportation system doesn’t use refrigeration, Longstroth said.

According to Villata, China had 8,645 acres of highbush blueberries in 2010. Longstroth expects China to have 25,000 acres of blueberries by 2015, producing 60 million to 70 million pounds.

Blueberry products are becoming more and more popular in China, and demand in that country might increase faster than domestic production. That would leave the door open for U.S. exports, Longstroth said.

However, Asia and the Pacific Rim are major markets for U.S. frozen blueberries, and those markets are logical targets for Chinese exports. In a few years, China will be a significant competitor in the Asian frozen blueberry market. Price and distance will be China’s primary advantages. Other countries will be able to compete on quality and food safety issues, according to Longstroth.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor





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