Blueberry demand should rise with production
David Munger (left) and Kable Munger, co-owners of Munger Farms, Delano, Calif., which markets its blueberries through Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC, view some berries running on the packing line. Blueberry packers and marketers say the fruit has become more popular and has broken out of the specialty produce stable. Courtesy Naturipe Farms

Blueberry production and consumption shows little indication of slowing. This season’s shipments are predicted to be at record levels, with the percentage going to fresh increasing by nearly a third from just five years ago.

According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif., despite freezes lowering Southeastern plantings, total production is expected to be at least as high as last season’s, which at 407.2 million pounds was a record.

Production in 2008 was 13% higher than 2007 and 26% higher than 2005 — but the category continues to avoid the pitfalls some commodities face when production boosts drop markets and demand can’t satisfy the need to keep product moving.

“We are anticipating that a larger percentage of the overall crop will go fresh because there’s a better market there,” said Robert Verloop, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC. “Consumers are demanding more fresh product than frozen. Consumers have had latent demand. They have wanted more product than they have had access to. The industry will bring more fruit to the marketplace to satisfy that demand.”

Verloop said Naturipe, one of the world’s largest blueberry marketers, expects production and consumption to double within the next five years and that growth has made the berry a leading-selling produce category.

Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., said growers have responded to increased demand by planting more bushes. He said planted acreage has increased 33% during the past two years.

“Blueberries have had fantastic demand over the last five years or longer,” Mixon said. “As evidenced from last summer, consumption has built every week of the year that they have been out there. I think more people will be eating blueberries, a larger amount over every week of the year instead of just during the peak summer months.”

Health message

Mixon points to research conducted by the blueberry council, which examines how blueberries may fight age-related disease, diabetes and vision-related issues, which has helped fuel interest in the health benefits provided by blueberries.

The increasing interest in the berries’ health benefits has also helped expand consumption.

Mark Villata, the council’s executive director, said increasing blueberry supplies can provide more consistent supplies for food manufacturers that have been introducing more products containing blueberries. He said he expects up to 1,300 new products using blueberries as an ingredient to be introduced this year.

The increasing processer use of blueberries helps stoke fresh demand, Villata said, because once consumed, consumers look for blueberries in other venues.

“Manufacturers and consumers are interested in them, and they’re reaching a new plateau in our industry,” Villata said. “They are not really a specialty product anymore. They’re now more mainstream than they have ever been before.”

Although the council doesn’t plan on abandoning its public relations campaigns that highlight the berry’s health benefits, a proposed doubling of assessments for fresh and processed blueberries would be used to expand into advertising. The council’s board in March voted in favor of the increase, which amounts to 1.2 cents a pound. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to rule on the proposal, which would raise an estimated $4 million. If approved, the assessment increase would go in effect in 2010.

Villata said he expects a larger percentage of berries going fresh this year. The percentage shipping fresh has increased 22%-20% each year since 2005.

With the exception of the 2007 season, fresh shipments have accounted for the majority of blueberry use. Last year, fresh shipments were 54%, up from 50.4% in 2006.

“Fresh is becoming more important every year,” Villata said. “The news is still fresh as far as media interest in nutrition is concerned. Consumers want to know more about health and are looking for fresh blueberries.”

Marketers are working to take advantage of that consumer interest by doing more promotions and marketing to educate consumers, whether through on-pack discounts or coupons, about the convenience and benefits of eating blueberries.

California is seeing production and demand blossom. The West Coast, which as a region has the lowest U.S. per-capita consumption rates, is seeing faster sales growth, Verloop said. He said more fresh product is making its way to improving markets west of the Rocky Mountains.

California’s acreage grew 25% over the past two years, to 2,500 acres in 2008, and production will increase as newer plantings mature.

Increasing California production, Verloop said, as well as some East Coast shippers sending more product west, should have a big effect on the West Coast’s season, which begins in mid-May in California’s Central Valley.

“That will really stretch the marketing window, especially when you consider the fact that the West Coast used to be Oregon and Washington, which were much later in the season,” he said.

While California’s Central Valley production normally starts in early May and runs through late June while northern California runs through early July, the state’s coastal berries can start as early as late February, depending on weather conditions, Verloop said.

Pacific Northwest production normally begins in late July and runs through September.

Florida production has begun and pickings will begin in Georgia in May and later move up the East Coast to New Jersey and Michigan during the summer.