Aug 16, 2020
Industry puts focus on blueberry sales potential

Something about blueberries drives the blues away.

Jeff Malensky, newly-named chair of the promotion committee for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Committee (USHBC), says he’s often noticed the phenomena: Start talking about blueberries to somebody, and they’ll soon crack a smile.

And more than an emotional reflex, or a salesman’s natural enthusiasm for his trade, a strong export market and new horizons in fruit quality controls and processing add up well for U.S. blueberry growers, Malensky said. Those trends really are something growers can smile about.

USHBC board chair Chris Barnhill said Malensky was the natural choice to continue industry changes begun by Bob Carini, the Michigan grower who previously headed up the promotions committee.

“Jeff brings a good energy of opportunity and optimism to the position that we need right now in the blueberry business,” Barnhill said in a news release. “I have been encouraged and excited about the changes that have been underway.”

A growing success

Jeff Malensky

Malensky has served on the promotions committee for six years, in addition to acting as chair of the Oregon Blueberry Commission. But perhaps most importantly, he comes with a storied family history as a third-generation grower, packer and processor.

“My grandparents were working at a packing plant, and this is back in the early 40s, and they just had gotten married at that point, and at the packing plant, it was a local one, the owner said, ‘You know, we have plenty of fruit, but we just can’t source it. Why don’t you grow for us?’” Malensky said. The farm was established in 1948, planting mostly strawberries and blackberries and his own parents took it over in the early 80s. In 1992, they planted their first field with blueberries, Duke-variety bushes.

Hillsboro, Oregon-based Oregon Berry Packing now works with 15 other family companies to meet its berry-packing orders. Together, the group has about 800 acres of blueberries, 200 acres of black raspberries, and 60 acres of strawberries. Although they pack some frozen and processed berries, the group has gravitated more toward fresh sales.

Oregon’s blueberry industry has accelerated as growers in the state record the highest average yields in the country – routinely 20,000 lbs. per acre, according to the Oregon Blueberry Commission’s website. Malensky said the climate and land are well-suited for production, with dry, sunny summers that boost brix. Common varieties used are Draper, Aurora and Liberty.

That first field of Duke blueberries remains used for commercial production, 30 years after it was planted – it’s one of their best-yielding fields.

“Nearly 30 years after the fact, we’re still picking,” Malensky said. “In fact, we’re going to pick there Friday and it’s going to one of my Japanese customers.”

Great exportations

Malensky also serves as a member of the Export Committee for USHBC and on the Legislative Committee and the Procurement Task Force for the North American Blueberry Council.

Oregon Berry Packing’s first fresh berry exports were to Switzerland in the early 1990s.

Oregon Berry Packing was one of the first U.S. companies to begin exporting fresh blueberries to Japan (they had previously shipped just processed strawberries there for ice cream). Although the company exports to other Asian markets including South Korea, Japan is its top export market, and Oregon Berry Packing visits the country most years to make sure the business relationships are working smoothly.

“We’re really intimately involved with our customers,” Malensky said.

Asian sales have been able to continue to some extent even during the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit with strict safety precautions. U.S. berries are still being shipped out.

“Our companies put a lot of time and energy into keeping people safe,” he said. “I think we’re pretty lucky in these export markets. For better or worse, they’ve controlled things better than we have.”

A key to making the Japanese sales work was meeting their high expectations for quality. Malensky said automated sorting technology has helped in this regard – packers can have the packing line cull berries based on their firmness or color.

“This technology is helping us deliver to the consumer a happier experience,” he said.

See more news from the blueberry industry››

Draper, Aurora and Liberty are common varieties for Jeff Malensky and other Oregon growers.

New horizons

Higher berry quality is one way growers could possibly grow demand for blueberries in the U.S. domestic markets as well, Malensky said.

“You as a customer are going to see some fruit you would have never been able to see before,” he said.

He said that currently, berries sold at major U.S. retailers don’t have consistently high quality. This is something his daughter, Samantha, was able to notice at the age of 5, when the family picked up a box of berries when Oregon berries were out of season.

“She goes, ‘Daddy, these are all mushy and yucky. I don’t like them,’” Malensky said. Ideally, berries seamlessly sourced from around the country, and meeting high standards for quality could grow domestic demand berries, he said.

Other options that the promotions committee has talked about in the past include selling berries dried or frozen. Malensky noted that most other berries don’t eat well in all three forms: fresh, frozen and dried.

But at the heart of all the committee discussions is what will best help the growers smile.

“We’ve got to put our grower hat on in these meetings,” Malensky said. “That’s got to be seminal in what we do.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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