Dec 20, 2021
U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council energized after planning effort, referendum OK

Blueberry growers have support for the industry and plans for the next five years following historically high support for a referendum that will extend the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC)’s work.

A renewed sense of unity in the industry, the key hire of a staff doctor and no less than a plan for world domination as the globe’s favorite fruit show how active the group has been.

“I just have a really great positive outlook as to where we’re at and where we’re going,” said Shelly Hartmann, owner of True Blue Farms near South Haven, Michigan, and president of the board of USHBC.

All together, now

U.S. Highbush Blueberry CouncilThe USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service in early November released results of the industrywide referendum vote that took place Oct. 8-22.

Eighty-four percent of producers and importers voting in the referendum, who also represent 93% of the volume of highbush blueberries grown, were in favor of continuing the program. This represents a 10% increase in producers and importers (and 13% more volume), of those who voted in favor of USHBC in 2016.

Kasey Cronquist, who’s president of USHBC as well as the North American Blueberry Council, said that more growers participated in the referendum than usual.

“This referendum represented the most amount of pounds participating, and it wasn’t even close,” Cronquist said. “We’re talking about over a half a billion pounds participating in this referendum, the most amount that’s ever participated, which was 230 million pounds, and so there is a significant amount of involvement by the industry in this referendum.”

Although it passed by an overwhelming margin, two groups of Georgia growers – the Georgia Blueberry Commission and the Georgia Berry Commission – had taken a position against renewing the referendum supporting the USHBC. Letters written by the two organizations referenced an International Trade Commission investigation that ultimately did not prove that imported blueberries were financially hurting U.S. growers. NABC had decided to remain neutral regarding the investigation, while USHBC was required to remain neutral under the USDA rules.

Cronquist said he was aware of the Georgia growers’ concerns.

“I had spent some time in Georgia meeting with the leadership of these two boards and discussing their concerns about the future ahead,” he said.

Such conversations continue, he said.

“We continue to serve everyone, whether you voted for, or you didn’t vote for, the USHBC,” Cronquist said. “We’re going to continue to do the job of driving demand and increasing consumption of blueberries both here in the United States and of course around the world when it comes to exporting our industry or blueberries.”

In the meantime, NABC chairman Ken Patterson, a Florida blueberry grower, has also launched a United Blueberry Task Force to keep growers working together and “to try to avoid this kind of confrontation again within our industry,” Cronquist said.

A new plan

The USHBC in late October also rolled out a detailed strategic plan to grow the volume and value of blueberries sold both domestically and internationally.

The ambitious plan aims to “make blueberries the world’s favorite fruit.”

USHBC collects approximately $10 million in assessment dollars from growers and importers of record annually, and the strategic plan addresses how the council will invest the money. The plan includes expanded, measurable programmatic goals and tactics for five strategic pillars: integrated marketing communications, health and nutrition, industry services, global business development, and innovation and technology.

Leslie Wada
Leslie Wada

The health and nutrition pillar will be driven by USHBC’s first-ever senior director of nutrition and health research, Leslie Wada. A registered dietitian, Wada holds a doctorate degree in nutritional sciences from the University of California, Berkeley.

“I’ve said it before, but blueberries needed a doctor on staff,” Cronquist said.

Wada, who has served as a health research consultant for USHBC for 12 years, will oversee the health research programs.

“This was, I think, a strategic decision to ensure that we left no doubt that this is an area that we’re committed to continue to expand the benefits and the health, and understand the brand proposition of blueberries over time,” Cronquist said.

The strategic plan targets emerging markets around the globe – South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, Hartmann said. There are also ingredient marketing programs in India and South America.

“Our marketing efforts help importers and retailers raise awareness and demand for USA blueberries when they’re in season,” Hartmann said. “In fact, Vietnam, the Philippines and China just recently granted access for USA fresh blueberries in the past three years. Vietnam has become one of the industry’s top three export markets in Asia. USHBC held its first in-store promotion in China in 2021, and it went really well. Retailers in China are eager for more USA fresh blueberry shipments in 2022. The ingredient market globally is growing very quickly for blueberries as well, and the U.S. is a leading supplier of processed blueberries. USHBC’s export programs aim to provide USA blueberry suppliers with a balanced program promoting fresh and processed blueberries around the world.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor


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