(April 10, 1:55 p.m.) A blueberry industry group hopes to double the assessments on berries, using the estimated $4 million to aggressively advertise and pay for studies on the health benefits of consumption.

The Auburn, Calif.-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council’s request comes in anticipation of expanding domestic production and imports.

If approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, assessments would increase from six-tenths of a cent per pound to 1.2 cents per pound, said Mark Villata, the council’s executive director.

The decision to request the change came at the March meeting of the council’s board of directors and covers blueberries for the fresh and processing markets.

If approved, the assessments would start in 2010.

“With the increase in assessments, it will put us at a level where we can move the needle a bit on demand,” said Art Galletta, co-owner of Atlantic Blueberry Co., Hammonton, N.J., and chairman of the council.

“Up to this point we’ve been using public relations,” Villata said. “It’s worked well for us, and we’ll continue to do that, but with advertising we can target our audience.”

Delano, Calif.-based grower-shipper David Munger, board member of the California Blueberry Association, supports increasing the assessment.

“We’re riding this health halo, but if we’re going to keep up with our production curve we’re going to have to increase consumption,” he said.

Munger and his brother, Kable Munger, are among the larger blueberry growers in California, with almost 2,000 acres and supplying Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla.“I know it’s going to be a tough pill for everyone to swallow,” David Munger said.

U.S. blueberry acreage has increased by about a third in the past three years, Villata said, from 71,000 acres in 2005 to 95,000 acres last year. The council’s long-term worldwide projection is for 1.5 billion pounds of blueberries by 2015, nearly two-thirds of that volume grown in the U.S., he said.

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2008 cultivated blueberry production was 191.9 million pounds for the fresh market and 156.8 million for the processing market.

“We figure we’ll have to double consumption over the next five years to keep pace with supply,” Villata said.

The threat of overproduction may prove to be the catalyst the industry needs.

“It’s not doom and gloom that we have more berries available and will soon have even more,” Villata said, “It’s opening up more opportunities, but we need the funds to take advantage of those opportunities.”

In addition to more advertising, the increased assessment would permit the industry to increase its health research, Villata said.

“The health interest has really been the whole reason for the boom in blueberries,” he said. “We need to start moving into human trials, which are very expensive.”

Fresh vs. processed

Raising assessments for advertising on processing-market berries has at least one grower voicing opposition.

“It’s an unfair assessment,” said, Phil Olson, owner of Olson Berry Co., Amity, Ore., noting that prices for fresh berries are much higher than for processed berries.

The bulk of the blueberries grown on his 400 acres in the Willamette Valley goes to his processing plant, Olson said.

The blame for the potential of overproduction is on the shoulders of the growers, Olson said.

“There was a time when we weren’t able to meet the demand,” he said. “Huge planting came in as the industry let prices get too high.”

As a result, the industry lost some of its market share, Olson said. A case in point, he said, are Japanese importers who directed U.S. suppliers to pack in smaller bags but maintained the same price they had charged for the larger bags. That drove away some consumers, he said.

Comment period

Galletta said grower-shippers want to control expenses, but that there are times when they must spend money to make money.

“I think the vast majority of the growers understand that we need to promote blueberries, because we have a lot of new levels of production coming on line,” he said.

Once the proposal is printed in the Federal Register, there will be a 60-day comment period, Villata said. After evaluating the proposal and the subsequent comments, the USDA makes the final decision.

That decision could be as much as a year away, Villata said. If the increase is approved, it would go into effect with the 2010 season, he said. Grower-shippers would not feel the effects until late next year.

“Our assessments are collected in November,” Villata said, “so we wouldn’t receive the additional funds until November 2010.