Sep 4, 2012
Western, Southern states lead blueberry surge

The North American blueberry industry is growing at a tremendous rate. As of now, the United States and Canada are producing an average of roughly 500 million pounds of highbush blueberries per year, a total that’s projected to reach 735 million pounds by 2015, according to Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC).

The growth is a response to massive increases in blueberry consumption, driven by the berry’s healthful properties and the industry’s marketing efforts. Currently, annual blueberry consumption in the United States is 36.2 ounces per person, up from 22.7 ounces five years ago. In the same time period, fresh blueberry consumption grew from 9.2 ounces per person to 20 ounces, Villata said.

In response to greater consumption, just about every blueberry-growing region is increasing production. Much of that growth is taking place in the U.S. Northwest and South, Villata said.

According to USDA, the United States produced more than 434 million pounds of “cultivated” (or highbush) blueberries in 2011 (Maine is the only state that grows “wild,” or uncultivated, blueberries in significant numbers). The Western states of Oregon (65.5 million pounds), Washington (61 million pounds) and California (33 million pounds) were responsible for more than a third of that cultivated total.

Northwest

Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, expects his state to produce 70 million pounds of blueberries in 2012. A decade ago, if you had said Oregon would be in the 70-million-pound range, you would have been laughed out of the room, he said.

There are about 250 blueberry growers in Oregon right now, mostly on the western side of the state. The climate is ideal for blueberry production: Not too cold in winter or too hot in summer. High-density plantings, better varieties and the increasing sophistication of the growers have also contributed to industry growth, Ostlund said.

There wasn’t much need for rapid growth out West until about 2000, when people started paying more attention to the blueberry’s healthful properties. New markets were opening up in Asia at about the same time, Ostlund said.

The growth isn’t limited to Oregon. Washington state’s blueberry yield could outpace its southern neighbor’s in the next five years, Ostlund said.

According to numbers from the Washington Blueberry Commission (slightly different from USDA’s numbers), Washington state produced 18.4 million pounds of blueberries in 2006, and 28.5 million pounds in 2007. Last year, the total grew to 60 million pounds. The state’s output more than tripled in size in half a dozen years, said Alan Schreiber, the commission’s director.

The commission projected that Washington would yield 70 million pounds of blueberries in 2012. There might be 10,000 acres in the state by the end of the year, Schreiber said.

Large plantings in eastern Washington have contributed to the surge. Ten years ago, there were hardly any blueberries in that part of the state. Five years from now, half the state’s production could be there, he said.

Eastern Washington is ideal for growing blueberries. The weather is suitable, there are few insect and disease problems and the soil is acidic. Almost all the new plantings are of high-yielding varieties planted in higher densities, with drip irrigation – very efficient, Schreiber said.

Forty percent of the plantings in eastern Washington are certified organic (20 percent in the entire state). Fresh organic blueberries are in high demand, he said.

South

According to USDA, Georgia yielded 65 million pounds of cultivated blueberries in 2011. The state’s harvested acres grew from 4,802 in 2007 to 12,000 in 2011.

Russ Goodman, a grower and member of the Georgia Blueberry Commission’s board of directors, is one of the growers who’s taken advantage of the state’s blueberry surge. He planted his first blueberries about the year 2000. He was in the timber industry before that, but profits were shrinking and blueberries looked promising. He started with 16 acres, and now has 450.

“Blueberries worked out OK for us,” he said.

Goodman grows in southern Georgia, where most of the state’s blueberries are located. In the last decade, berry plantings have “skyrocketed” in his home county, Clinch County, and nearby Appling County. The soil in those areas is high in organic matter, conducive to growing blueberries, he said.

A “major game changer” for Goodman was the decision to build a packing shed, something that could handle the large volume of berries he was growing. His berries, sold through Naturipe Farms, end up all over the world, he said.

The price of blueberries has come down since Goodman started – thanks to increasing volumes from his home state and Florida – but they’re still profitable, he said.

“We have to continue to grow our markets,” he said.

Michigan

During the Fruit Crop Guesstimate in June, Bob Carini of Carini Farms in West Olive, Mich., said Michigan could expect a blueberry crop of 81 million pounds in 2012. That’s higher than 2011’s crop of 72 million pounds, but lower than the state’s five-year average of 96.6 million pounds, he said.

Considering the damage done to other fruit in the state, however, Michigan’s blueberry growers are grateful to have a crop this year, Carini said.

Michigan’s harvested acres shrank from 19,641 in 2007 to 18,700 in 2011, according to USDA.

Older, less productive blueberry plantings in the state are being removed and replanted to newer varieties, and new acreage is being converted, but new interpretations of land-use regulations have stymied some grower attempts to plant new acres. This could have a significant effect on the overall growth of the industry, said Dave Trinka, director of research for MBG Marketing, a marketing cooperative based in Michigan.

When everything goes right, Michigan can still produce more than 100 million pounds of blueberries, said Villata, director of USHBC.

“Michigan is still pretty entrenched as the largest producing state – for some time to come,” he said.

The future

So how long can the explosive growth last for the U.S. blueberry industry?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Ostlund said.

To keep pace with all the new plantings, the industry will have to increase consumption over the next five years. There’s still a considerable amount of growth potential, however. Surveys have shown that about half of U.S. consumers have purchased blueberries during the past year, leaving a lot more potential consumers out there. Export markets continue to expand as well, especially in Asia, Villata said.

Trinka said blueberry product development is continuing. There were more than 700 new product launches in the United States and Canada in 2012, and more than 1,300 internationally. Producers who plant new varieties with greater customer appeal and who align themselves with aggressive marketers will continue to take advantage of the berry’s popularity, Trinka said.

“I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface with blueberries,” Villata said. “There’s a lot of room to grow. We just have to get the word out and continue to be aggressive in marketing.”

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor





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