ALMA, Ga. — A group of dieticians and food bloggers received a first-hand look at how the U.S. blueberry industry sends product to consumers.
Doug OhlemeierBrandon Wade (from left), of Alma Berry Farms in Alma, Ga., Derrin Wheeler, director of MBG Marketing’s Sunbelt business unit in Alma, Lorrie Merker, MBG’s vice president of grower relations, and Lane Wade, owner of Alma Berry Farms conduct a field tour May 21. During a May 20-21 southeastern Georgia tour, participants from the East Coast saw how blueberries are grown, packed, processed and distributed.
The tour, hosted by the Folsom, Calif.-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, included facilities in the Alma area operated by the Grand Junction, Mich.-based MBG Marketing, a co-owner of Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Farms LLC.
MBG’s growers ship about 40% of Georgia’s fresh and processed blueberries, said Derrin Wheeler, director of MBG’s Sunbelt business unit.
To counter cuts to state university breeding programs, MBG began its own variety development program and in 2013, that breeding effort released seven varieties for southeastern production, he said.
Participants toured a 50,000-square-foot packinghouse and a 30,000-square-foot distribution center.
The packing operation is expected to handle up to 20 million pounds of fresh conventional and organic blueberries and blackberries while the distribution center supplies MBG’s 26 packing facilities.
Georgia produced 68 million pounds of fruit last year, but this year’s crop is expected to exceed 80 million pounds. Georgia is often the country’s second-leading producer, said Lorrie Merker, MBG’s vice president of grower relations.
“Georgia growers, they really like to go fresh,” she said. “The state has had a couple of bad years when so many (berries) went processed.”
Doug OhlemeierKevin Eason, MBG Marketing member and partner with The Blueberry House, Alma, Ga., shows a flat of blueberries at the packing line to dieticians Pat Baird from Greenwich, Conn., and Allison Sacks, from Washington, D.C.Participants viewed 110 acres of new plantings by John Bennett, an MBG board member and owner of JAB-J Corp. which does business as Alma Sunbelt Blueberries.
Bennett said proper marketing can help all growers.
“If we have good marketers, there’s room for increasing consumption,” he said. “Poor planning by fly-by-night marketers hurts the deal. If we don’t plan it, the deal can go nuts.”
At another field, participants were told how food safety remains a critical concern.
“These kinds of tours are extremely important as people are wanting to see where the fruit comes from outside of the cups of blueberries they see in the metropolitan areas,” said Lane Wade, owner of Alma Berry Farms.
Such tours are critical for helping advance blueberry, knowledge, Merker said.
“People are more health savvy and we want to showcase the source of where the fruit comes from,” she said. “This is a great way to show the reality of what goes on and to spread word about the industry.”
The tour also included a visit to an individually quick frozen plant that’s under construction as well a cooking class that focused on the region’s low country style of cooking.
About half of MBG’s and Naturipe’s berries ship fresh.