The first load of U.S. blueberries arrived in South Korea in early July, and the industry is hopeful that many more will follow.
“We’ve been working on this program with Korea for the better part of 10 years,” said Brian Ostlund, executive director of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, Salem.
This was the first time South Korea allowed fresh blueberries to be shipped in from anywhere in world, he said.
“It’s been a long time coming and a lot of work,” he said.
Growers in Oregon, the only state to be cleared to ship blueberries to South Korea, must comply with strict protocols before their product is exported.
They are required, for example, to implement trapping programs and field surveys to make sure the berries are healthy and free of insects.
“There’s a lot of recordkeeping,” he said.
Numerous meetings were held over the past year with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
“It’s been a lot of collaborative effort,” Ostlund said.
Fifty growers will produce blueberries for the program, and nine companies will pack them.
Most of the product will be transported by aircraft, which will deliver product within three days.
The first shipments were in 5.5- or 6-ounce packages. Ostlund said it had not yet been determined if larger packs would be shipped eventually.
The plan is to get the South Korean market opened to other states in the future, said Mark Villata, executive director for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif.
“We’re doing the background work to eventually open it up to the West Coast and then move on from there,” he said.
“It’s a step-by-step process. It takes a long time to gain market access.”
The South Koreans have imposed a 40.5% tariff on Oregon berries, said Brian Malensky, director of fresh market sales for Oregon Berry Packing Co., Hillsboro, Ore.
That’s a stiff tariff, he said, but one that growers are willing to live with, considering that they could not ship any product to South Korea in the past.
Oregon Berry Packing was scheduled to start shipping blueberries to South Korea on a small scale the second week in July.
Most packers will take it slow, Malensky said.
“We want to make sure we do everything correctly.”
Oregon packers could ship more than 1 million pounds to South Korea the first year, Ostlund said — a good amount, but a fraction of the 70 million pounds the state’s growers will produce.
Ostlund is optimistic for the future.
South Korea already is a major importer of frozen blueberries, he said, and the number of buyers there is “absolutely off the charts.”