Chile, Argentina and Uruguay could have some more competition in the near future in the fall/winter import blueberry deal.

In recent weeks, while reporting stories on other subjects, importers have shared tips for a story that only promises to get bigger: blueberry production in Mexico.

Mexico latest to jump on blueberry bandwagon

Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

One importer I talked to is working with University of Georgia researchers on developing varieties tailored to the Mexican climate.

Mexico has been a dominant player in the blackberry market for awhile. Blueberries, not so much.

Chile, the export leader, shipped 74 million pounds of blueberries to the U.S. in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Mexico, by contrast, shipped just 1 million pounds.

But the freight advantage is undeniable, and more and more attractive to many exporters and importers.

Chilean importers I talked to recently had transportation-related complaints ranging from shippers slowing down boats to save on fuel (and thereby potentially threatening the health of their perishable loads) to scurrying for planes in December to meet holiday demand.

You would think blueberry importers might be worried about this, with potential overlap with three other import deals a distinct possibility.

You might also think they’d be worried about a Chilean blueberry crop this season that’s slated to be 30-35% larger than last year’s crop.

Importers I talked to estimated this year’s Chilean crop would be about 65,000 tons, up from 50,000 tons last year. And you’d be wrong. If anyone has seen the ceiling on demand for blueberries, let me know, because that would be the scoop of the year for me.

I can’t think of another crop in recent memory that growers, shippers and importers are more bullish about. It doesn’t matter how much volumes are projected to rise — blueberry folks tell you they’ll have no trouble finding the demand to meet it.

And, hard as it is to believe, blueberry volumes seem to be nearing (if they’re not there already) a level where economies of scale could send demand up at an even faster pace.

About 356 million pounds of fresh-market blueberries were shipped in the U.S. in 2009, up from 189 million pounds just five years before, according to the USDA.

About 133 million pounds of those were imported, up from 64 million pounds in 2004.

Shippers and importers can’t stop talking about pints as the new, or soon-to-be, packaging option of choice for retailers.

Volumes have increased so much, retailers can now offer pints (and even bigger packs in club stores) at a cost even the budget-minded consumer of 2010 will accept.

That was unimaginable in the recent past, when consumers like me (and I almost never consider price when I’m buying produce) agonized over whether to spend $3.99 or more for that 4.4-ounce container of blues that would be gone by tomorrow.

Here’s one extreme example that, for me, perfectly sums up the blueberry market. One importer told me her company expects its Chilean volumes to increase by 90% this season. That’s right: Ninety. Percent.

On top of that, the deal is late because of cool fall weather. Vessel shipments won’t arrive until after the December holiday rush.

So is she worried? Let me put it this way: she’s about as worried about not moving those blueberries as I am about my Cornhuskers not winning the Big 12 North.