Suppliers of Argentine blueberries said retailers and consumers expect year-round blueberries, and a number of factors will continue this year’s uptick in shopper interest.

“The berry category has continued to grow in flourish in today’s economy. All of the great health benefits of berries plus their year-round availability make them a great purchase for consumers,” said Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of Sunny Ridge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla.

Mixon said that offering imported berries during the winter opens a new profit center for retailers.

“During the winter months, great produce can be hard to find. Berries are harvested ripe and ready to eat and offer a distinctly different taste profile and visual appeal to the typical winter fare,” he said.

Mike Hollister, vice president of sales and marketing at Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., said though the supply of winter blueberries pales in comparison to the domestic season, suppliers are preparing to move larger-than-normal volumes this year.

“We’re going to be significantly heavier — twice as much as last year,” he said. The challenge of moving that many berries, Hollister said, will be finding a price point that works for consumers but also covers the high cost of bringing the commodity to market.

“You have some economic challenges of getting Argentina’s early fruit,” he explained.

Argentine blueberries must undergo fumigation and are mostly flown in at higher cost than ocean-going vessels, though suppliers are breathing a slight sigh of relief that fuel prices are lower this year than the same time last year.

“Consumers are looking for more blueberries and they are willing to pay the price,” said Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif., who believes the marketing of blueberries as a healthy snack is driving the demand for fresh. “We are moving a record amount of fresh blueberries domestically, 60% this year.”

Villata said retailers are promoting the same winter dishes that are popular for summer blueberries including breakfast items, cakes and smoothies.

“We also have some recipes that are more like sauce-type applications, a little more popular in the winter months,” he said.

Villata said in the last two years, the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council has been putting more funding into public relations and publicity activities that have resulted in positive press about winter blueberries.

“We have been successful and we are seeing more coverage in the mainstream press but also in food service operations,” he said. “We are letting them know that there is a good availability of fresh fruit for the winter months.”

Villata noted that publicity is still directed to high consumption areas in the Midwest and eastern markets where consumers have grown up with blueberries, while there has been little attempt to make inroads in the South and West.

“I think that they are more used to blueberries in those regions. It’s a fairly new product in the South and in the West, mainly California,” he said of regions that he described as having a lot of potential.