Quebec’s smallest crop hugs the ground and is barely visible through its own scrubby branches. But if you happen to be in the Lac St. Jean area, four hours north of Quebec City, you might spot the clusters of blueberries that spell gold for a young company called Nutrableu.

In August and September, Quebec farmers gather about 70 million pounds of the prized berry.

Some 95% of the province’s crop grows around the lake, said Jean-Pierre Trottier, vice president of Normandin, Quebec-based Nutrableu, which owns 600 acres.

About a third of the crop is frozen in two large local plants and shipped around the world, and the rest is sold fresh locally.

Quebec's Nutrableu finds success marketing wild blueberries
           Courtesy Nutrableu Inc.
Nutrableu’s Bleu d’ici brand (Blue from Here) is sold in Quebec, and Blueland, an English label, is marketed in Ontario, Trottier says.

But Trottier, who has a masters degree in food science, company president Pierre-Luc Simard, a physics major, and chief executive officer Martin Villeneuve, who has an MBA, decided to buck tradition and market only fresh wild blueberries.

“We’re the only ones involved in the fresh market, which makes us unique,” said Trottier, 30. “Almost all Quebec wild blueberries are frozen in our two large local plants and shipped around the world.”

By buying 40% of their berries from other growers, 5-year-old Nutrableu now harvests a million pounds of the tiny berries a year.

“Wild blueberries are smaller and sweeter than cultivated berries,” said Trottier, who grew up in the business along with his partners, “and they represent a brand new market everywhere in the world.”

The company’s “Bleu d’ici” or Blue from Here berries are found in clamshells in Quebec, and they’ve created an English label, Blueland, for Ontario, where they began to ship last year. Eventually, he hopes, they’ll be able to export south.

“It’s a challenge to sell to the U.S. because our berries only have a shelf life of 10-15 days and it’s hard to maintain quality,” Trottier said. “We’re working on improving our quality.”

Growing and harvesting

Quebec's Nutrableu finds success marketing wild blueberries
                                             Courtesy Nutrableu Inc.
Normandin, Quebec-based Nutrableu developed its own equipment to harvest the wild blueberries the company markets. Jean-Pierre Trottier, vice president of the company, says the process allows berries to be cooling in the plant an hour after they’re picked.

About 10% of the crop is organic, but it’s extremely difficult to maintain.

“We always try to minimize the use of pesticides and herbicides and apply them locally when needed,” he said.

Since picking wild blueberries by hand is far too labor-intensive to make economic sense, the trio invested in and invented their own equipment to harvest and package their crop.

“We harvest with a machine that looks like a lawn mower,” Trottier said. “Within an hour after the berries are picked they’re in the plant and chilled to 39 degrees, and we use an optical sorter.”

Eventually, he hopes Nutrableu can expand to 1.5 million pounds. In the meantime, the team has started juicing the berries to create a wild juice that’s 100% pure.

“It tastes amazing,” Trottier said. “Sales began six months ago and we’ve sold about 15,000 bottles.

“For now we only sell in Quebec, but we’re expecting to expand our sales to Ontario and the U.S.”