Mexico aspires to repeat its success in blackberry exports elsewhere in the berry category. It hasn’t been easy but there are signs of movement.

“Blackberries are going to remain strong,” said Mario Steta, central Mexico general manager for Driscoll Strawberry Associates and president of the Guadalajara-based Aneberries AC trade association.

“We’ve all invested heavily in breeding and improving the quality of what’s being shipped. Blueberries have been here now for a few years, but finding the right varieties has been a challenge,” he said.

“Everything I’ve learned says that the potential is there and we’re close to making a difference in planting and getting volumes to market with blueberries.”

U.S. sales of blackberries were up 29% in volume earlier this year. Mexico accounted for nearly all of it.

Nationwide, Mexico farms well over 20,000 hectares of berries, a number Steta expects to double within four years.

The sector employs close to 80,000 people. Blackberries account for 40% to 45% of present volume, and strawberries, 25%.

Most of the new growth is expected in Jalisco and Michoacan. Aneberries, a regional association formed in June 2010, represents 70% to 80% of berries grown in the two states.

Driscoll’s, Naturipe Farms by Hortifrut, Hurst’s Berry Farm and Berrymex are among the 14 member companies at Aneberries.

Various companies not on the charter are also active in Mexico.

“Dole, California Giant and Green Giant are here,” Steta said.

“Green Giant has been in vegetables for some time but now they’re getting into berries. The dynamics of the companies coming here is really interesting. In the last two or three years, we’ve seen formal establishment of nurseries by U.S. and European producers. They see the opportunity and they’re investing. It’s not an easy one to deal with, but people are willing to bet on it. Chile is a big player.”

Driscoll’s will remain dominant in raspberries, Steta said, but won’t be alone.

“We’ve been very successful in Mexico, but you’re going to see more players no doubt because there’s a good opportunity,” he said.

Jerry Moran, bush berry category manager for Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms, said the cost of building programs in Mexico seems worthwhile.

Blueberry beginnings

“We are looking into blueberries there,” Moran said.

“We’re in negotiations with a couple growers. It’s worked so far on strawberries and blackberries, and for Driscoll’s on the raspberries. Blueberries are still new for Mexico. They haven’t really taken off.

“We’ll see the landscape change there in the next five to 10 years as plants get put in the ground and people try different regions and varieties, but companies are investing a lot. Cutting the freight by 10 to 12 days is a big plus with berries, which are so perishable.”

Adding more regions

Aneberries will gradually start to look beyond Jalisco and Michoacan shippers.

“To start, Baja would have been too challenging, so we kept it to two regions,” Steta said.

“We’re starting to go beyond that and will look at bringing Baja and others into the association.”

The group held its first trade association meeting in September in Guadalajara.

“The biggest outcome is that we were able to show the industry becoming organized, relevant and important to the future,” Steta said.

“That’s something that wasn’t there before. We don’t have everyone, but we have a voice to address (food safety) issues.”