(July 9) FRESNO, Calif. — California’s fresh blueberry handlers are working to form a marketing order as the industry makes tremendous strides in production.

Volume more than doubled this year, compared to 2003. California harvested 1.3 million crates of 12 1-pint cups by the end of June, while last year’s total was just above 600,000 crates, said Jay Stover, salesman for Fazio Marketing Inc.

It has taken time for the small district to build production, but Stover said industry members believe the time has arrived for cooperation. They plan to form a California blueberry association that would lay the groundwork for a marketing program. How the organization would be structured hasn’t been determined.

“Up until now the market hasn’t been viable enough to form a group,” he said.

Two blueberry commodity groups already exist. The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, is composed of all producers of highbush berries in the U.S. The council administers the Blueberry Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Order under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Blueberries produced in or imported into the U.S. and Puerto Rico are assessed $12 per ton. Operations producing less than 2,000 pounds are exempt from the fees.

Second is the North American Blueberry Council, Folsom, which represents members from Canada and the U.S. This organization focuses its efforts mainly on legislative affairs of the industry. Its members represent about 70% of the crop grown in North America.

North America leads the world’s blueberry market, with about 90% of global production. U.S. harvests run from mid-April through October and peak in July.

About 50% of all blueberries produced are dedicated to the fresh market.

Stover said the industry considers the next two years as a pivotal time for the growing region. San Joaquin Valley production has increased during the past 10 years.

California is estimated to have 1,500 acres, which may not seem much compared to the nation’s 65,000 acres.

Stover said not to dismiss the small acreage because most of it is made up of young plants. The acreage resulted in more than 1.3 million crates of 12 1-pint cups this year.

California’s berry industry differs greatly from production in the Northwest.

Yields can reach 15 tons per acre in the Pacific Northwest, while California’s usual varieties may reach 5- to 8-ton yields in the fifth year, according to the USDA.

The crop is so new that USDA and county agricultural commissioners don’t track or estimate production for the state’s crop.

NEW MARKET

Blueberries aren’t native to the valley, and it wasn’t until 10 years ago that new varieties were introduced to the southern climates, Stover said. The varieties require fewer chill hours.

“Now it is becoming a viable district that has gained national attention … as acreage has grown eight to 10 times,” said Tony Fazio, Fazio Marketing president. “It is still growing fast.”

“During the next couple of years we’re going to see (production) grow,” said Jennifer Hashim, University of California farm adviser, Bakersfield. “The industry is new to my area, with lots of acreage at the base of the Tehachaphi mountains.”

Although in acreage it is small compared with other California crops, it is a high-value crop, she said.

“They are extremely expensive to grow, and only a few handlers can afford to plant them,” she said.

Blueberries come with a hefty profit threshold. Hashim said blueberries have to sell at more than 92 cents a pound to make a profit.

The California growth is a result of new varieties that were developed at the University of Florida, Hashim said.

GROWING REGIONS

Michigan, Maine, Oregon, New Jersey and North Carolina lead national production of blueberries.

“These crops are well-established and produce 10-15 tons per acre,” Stover said.

Northern production is exported, sold for processing or sold to fresh market. Northern blueberries are either harvested mechanically or by hand, Stover said.

California differs because 100% of the berries are for the fresh market, Stover said, which requires hand harvesting.

Fresh market prices are a necessity to California’s market because yields are so low compared to mature northern crops.

“The California crop wouldn’t have the value if the berries went to processing,” Stover said. “Every berry is precious to us.”

California’s harvest ran from May 3 to the last day of June this year. This time frame is typical. North Carolina and New Jersey have moderate supplies available when California’s crop is harvested.

“California is enjoying a niche market during May and June,” he said. “It is a nice local business that has good quality.”

California Blueberry marketing group may form
In California, 100% of the berries grown there are for the fresh market , says Jay Stover, salesman for Fazio Marketing Inc.