Blueberry demand calls for more acres

07/22/2010 02:22:53 PM
Susie Cable

To keep up with demand, blueberry growers are putting in more acres and coaxing more blueberries from existing plants.

Overall, this summer’s U.S. blueberry crop is expected to be similar to last year’s, said Mark Villata, executive director for the North American Blueberry Council and for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif.

But some individual grower-shippers said they expect bigger volumes.

Growers for Michigan Summer Blueberries Inc., Bangor, Mich., are expected to pack about 3 million pounds of fresh blueberries this season, said George Fritz, president and sales manager. That’s about 400,000 pounds more than last year.

In early July, growers in southern Michigan were harvesting their second pick of blueberries, Fritz said. Harvest started June 20, which was a week to 10 days earlier than normal. The crop had advanced quickly during the mild winter weather.

Fritz said crop quality and demand were good in early July. Volume was light, possibly because the region had a frost and cold weather in early May during pollination.

“It’s unusual that we’ll have a frost that hurts the blueberries,” Fritz said.

Typically, Michigan Summer growers harvest blueberries in the southern region into early September, but Fritz said he wouldn’t be surprised if this crop was done by Aug. 20.

Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., shipped blueberries from Michigan in early July and the supply was expected to continue into early September.

Douglas Ronan, vice president of marketing, said this is the first season Driscoll’s has established a relationship with a grower in Michigan. He said he expects the partnership to increase its supply for Midwest customers.

Driscoll’s also ships blueberries from New Jersey, where supplies are expected to continue into September. With storage, it should continue supplying fresh blueberries through the end of September.

The company supplies western U.S. customers with blueberries from the Pacific Northwest. It recently opened new cooling and packing facilities in partnership with two growers in Grandview, Wash., Ronan said.

Oregon blues
The blueberry crop in Oregon got started about a week late, but by early July, production was gathering steam, said Doug Perkins, sales director, Hurst’s Berry Farm Inc., Sheridan, Ore. He said it looked like the early-variety duke crop would not have its typical sharp peak in volume, but volumes would instead be spread throughout the harvest period.

Hurst’s is marketing 4.4-, 6- and 11-ounce packs of Grande Blues, packed with blueberries that measure 18 millimeters and larger. About two years ago, the company identified certain varieties that produced larger berries and began packing them separately and marketing them as Grande Blues, Perkins said.

“The biggest challenge is being consistent with finding the right size of fruit,” he said.

“We’ve been able to identify certain varieties to pretty much have a consistent supply of large-size fruit.”

Grande Blues are available from late April through September, during the California and Oregon blueberry seasons. Hurst’s mixes larger berries into its regular packs, too, Perkins said.

Hurst’s, a year-round blueberry shipper, expects to pick Oregon blueberries into September. The late-season crop is expected to be put into controlled atmosphere storage to maintain a supply of high-quality Oregon berries for the market until Argentinean and Chilean blueberries take over in about late September.

Hurst’s also ships blueberries from Canada, where good volumes were expected to be available by late July.

Early blueberry harvest at Oregon Berry Packing Co., Hillsboro, Ore., got under way July 1, said Brian Malensky, vice president of domestic sales.

The crop was good quality and the weather was good for producing large berries. Malensky said he expected a big crop of duke variety blueberries. He expected mid-season blueberries would be ready for harvest by about July 20, with late season berries ready about Aug. 15.

In August, consumers should be impressed with some of the newer varieties of blueberries that are expected to be sweet and large, Malensky said.

He said he thinks the industry hasn’t yet reached its production potential in August and September, but that some newer varieties will help increase late summer volumes. Among Oregon Berry’s newer varieties are liberty, aurora, legacy and ochlockonee. They offer more flavor and are firmer, Malensky said.

“Our feeling is that in the future, berries will be promoted more by variety, like the bing cherry,” Malensky said.

“The superior buyers will want to know what varieties they’re buying.”

Oregon Berry can harvest blueberries into October. It has controlled atmosphere storage, where it can hold some varieties of blueberries for about six weeks.

Malensky said the company holds and ships berries until the Argentinean deal begins in the fall. He said he did not have estimates for the number of trays it was expected to ship, but said the company produces about 10% of the state’s blueberries.

Growing popularity
The most recent data available from the North American Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif., estimated that per-capita fresh consumption in 2009 was 15.4 ounces in the U.S., Villata said. In 2005, fresh consumption was 7.3 ounces.

The fruit is an increasingly important commodity for California Giant Inc., Watsonville. It increased its blueberry production by 30% over last year, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing, by adding more growers and acreage, and by getting more volume from existing bushes.

Jewell said blueberries used to be more of a regional fruit, with demand higher in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Now, though, with the media attention that blueberries have received because of their nutritional value and antioxidant levels, California Giant is seeing double-digit increases in purchases.

Blueberries are available year-round from various growing regions. California Giant’s summer blueberries are grown in short seasons in California, New Jersey and the northeastern and northwestern U.S.

The peak period for blueberries from Giumarra VBM International Berry LLC, Vernon, Calif., is mid-May to mid-August, said Bruce Turner, director of operations in the Wenatchee office.

The company markets blueberries from throughout the U.S. and from Canada, including California, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Summer blueberries were expected to be available into September from British Columbia and Michigan, Turner said.



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