Tumult in Greece has shaken up the European Union economy, and U.S. berry shippers wonder how it will affect their business with the EU this year.

“Of course, the euro is going through some gyrations now, with Greece and Portugal,” said Frank Bragg, chief executive officer of Grand Junction, Mich.-based MBG Marketing.

“Europe has been traditionally a better place to get higher prices. I don’t know how long it’s going to take with Greece, in particular, so I don’t know that it will be as attractive this year.”

That berry shipments currently go to Europe via airfreight only complicates the scenario, Bragg said.

“It makes it difficult to move significant volumes, but it’s still a building market for us as an industry.”

The United Kingdom is the largest consumer of U.S. blueberries in Europe, but it still pales in comparison to consumption in any region of the American marketplace, Bragg said.

“There are plenty of development opportunities there,” he said.

As of May 3, the euro was trading at 1.32 to the U.S. dollar, more or less the same level as a year earlier but significantly below the 1.51 it reached in December.

Across the Pacific Ocean, opportunities may be stronger, even with air-transport restrictions, said Dave Riggs, president of Quail Run Business Solutions, Aptos, Calif.

“The demand for berries has been very good in Japan and Australia, and they’re working on getting access to China,” Riggs said, referring to strawberries.

The international market for cranberries, it can be argued, has been strong than the U.S. market, at least for fresh product, said Toby Stapleton, marketing director at the Cranberry Marketing Committee, Wareham, Mass.

He said U.S. cranberry shippers exported 54,000 barrels of fresh cranberries in 2007, 47,000 in 2008, and 51,000 in 2009.

“Especially in Germany, there has been interest by consumers and the trade around the holidays,” Stapleton said, but it’s important to maintain a proper perspective there, he added.

“Still, it’s only about 5% of total production,” he said.

International marketing efforts in Europe are ongoing, Stapleton said. He also said there are programs with retailers in South Korea.

“In South Korea, we did a contest with a major retail chain,” he said. “South Korea is a pretty good market for us now and that is holding some promise.”

Strategies are crafted to meld with an individual market, Stapleton said.

“Whatever our representatives on the ground feel will work in the markets, so in some markets — for instance, in Australia, we don’t have a retail effort, but in Japan, South Korea, and Germany, we do have a part of our effort that’s focused on retail,” he said.

“So, internationally, we’re able to work with those customers to do promotions. Whether it’s POS, contests, some PR activity or tasting done at the retail level, that’s been a core part of our strategy in international markets.”

Japan is a solid market for blueberries, but other markets remain untapped, said Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif.

“Taiwan is starting to come along, and (South) Korea is showing interest,” Villata said.

He said Taiwan had increased its U.S. blueberry imports from 40,000 pounds to about 164,000 over the last couple of years.

“They’re in tune with the whole health message. That’s what really helped it grow in Japan,” Villata said.

The U.S. shipped about 2 million pounds of fresh blueberries to Japan last year, Villata said, comparing that to the 1.1 million pounds exported to the U.K.

“Using Japan as a model, we could move a lot more fresh to Taiwan,” he said.

For the moment, South Korea remains primarily a frozen-berry market, with 567,000 pounds shipped there, but Villata said he expects a thaw.

“It’s looking promising,” he said. “A lot of retailers in Korea are interested in getting fresh into the market. So, we’ll have our fingers crossed.”

India had similar phytosanitary restrictions on fresh U.S. blueberries two years ago, but now U.S. fresh shipments are making it into the Subcontinent, Villata said.

“Last year, we got all the protocols in line, and now we’re shipping to India,” he said.

“It’s not a lot right now. But the potential in India is really great, given the size of the country. The wealthy class there is probably as large as the population of the U.S.”

Chris Christian, vice president of marketing for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission, said strawberry exports totaled 241 million pounds last year.

Canada accounted for 83% of that, and its shipments increased by nearly 10% in 2009, Christian said.
“Our biggest market is Canada, with 83% of all California exports.”

China represents a potentially lucrative offshore market, with its 380 million middle class residents, but phytosanitary restrictions remain an obstacle, Christian said.

“We’re aggressively pursuing market access to mainland China,” she said.

“We started that process four years ago. We got temporary access in 2008, with the Beijing Olympics. We’re continuing to pursue that.”