The organic blueberry category still is growing in Chile, according to marketing agents, but it also faces challenges, said Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America with the Sonoma, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.Organic Chilean blueberries strong, despite price points

“The organic berry category continues to slowly grow in volume,” Tjerandsen said. “The price differential between traditional and organic has narrowed to the point that it is difficult for the grower to recover the higher growing and handling costs.”

Some marketers blamed the 2008 economic downturn for slowing the category’s growth, but they also say they have seen signs of a revival.

“Compared to 12 or 15 months ago, the whole organic category is a little bit stronger than what it was,” said Brian Bocock, vice president of product management, Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla. “We certainly get inquiries from retailers, and there will be plenty of opportunities to promote organic berries from Chile.”

Devotees of organic berries have maintained their loyalty to the category, said Tom Richardson, general manager of Giumarra Cos., Wenatchee, Wash.

“There is still good demand for organic blueberries, and demand continues to grow at a steady pace,” he said. “Increased production should be able to take care of the demand, with exceptions of a few small windows during the year.”

Nolan Quinn, berry category director, The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, said he has noticed increased interest in organic blueberries from Chile, as well as from other growing regions.

“Year to year, there is more interest in this market,” he said. “Last year, the historical difference in prices between organic and conventional began to fall off, but volume continues to be small.”

Dave Bowe, owner of Coral Springs, Fla.-based Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc., said the category may show some sluggishness this year, but that may be somewhat deceptive.

“I don’t think that the growth is going to be as large as it was previously, only because there is such a huge supply and the costs of those are quite expensive when you compare to the regular one,” he said.

Mike Bowe, the company’s vice president, said stronger growth would return to the organic category.

“It’s a good category, but it just takes time,” he said. “It takes three years to go through the whole process. But the category has definitely grown.”

Chile has an edge in organics over other South American berry-production areas, such as Argentina, said Bob Von Rohr, marketing and customer relations manager for Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J.

“There is nothing out of Argentina available because of fumigation laws, and organics can’t be fumigated, but our organic program out of Chile grows by 20%-25% each year,” he said. “Years ago, most of the blueberries were packed in 4.4-ounce packages, and now they’re moving to 6-ounce and pints. That moves more volume. Most organics come in 4.4’s and move to 6s and with the conventional, mostly 6-ounces moving into the pints and the 18-ounce and special packs.”

Chile likely will continue to increase its organic production, said Keith Mixon, president of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla.

“They’ve had good success, I would say, so, they’re happy people right now,” he said. “The organic, although it hasn’t been widely through all distribution channels, seems to have a good following out there. It’s still a good product for everybody.”