(UPDATED COVERAGE, Oct. 14) The rapidly growing California blueberry industry will soon join the fraternity of commodities overseen by a state commission.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Oct. 12 paved the way for the state’s newest fruit governing board when he signed legislation establishing the California Blueberry Commission. The next step is a grower referendum.

The legislation has the support of the California Blueberry Association, which plans to move quickly to get the commission up and running.

“Our board will have a meeting in about two weeks to discuss all of the details,” Jon Marthedal, association president, said Oct. 13. “The goal is to have the commission in place by March 1.”

The law, effective Jan. 1, authorizes the commission to recommend to the California Department of Food and Agriculture the adoption of blueberry quality standards, labeling and marketing activity.

While the law provides for marketing and promotional efforts, grower-shippers are not planning on initiating such programs, Marthedal said. Assessments, which under the law could be as high as 2.5 cents per pound, will fund the commission, he said.

The assessment could come on top of a proposed doubling of assessments by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif. The request to increase the federal assessment to 1.2 cents per pound was submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year; the public comment period ended Sept. 25. California grower-shippers do not view the assessments as a burden, Marthedal said.

“I don’t think the assessments are going to be what keeps us from being profitable,” he said. “The flip side of that question is can we make a buck without them?”

California is a newcomer to the ranks of blueberry producing states; the first commercial crops were harvested in the mid 1990s. In 2008, California produced 12.5 million tons of fresh blueberries placing it No. 7, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

With imports of South American blueberries, the commodity has near year-round availability in the U.S., a situation Marthedal views positively. 

“I would guess that by something’s being available year round, people get in the habit of buying and it becomes a part of their diet,” he said,

The Highbush Blueberry Council’s projection is for 1.5 billion pounds of blueberries by 2015, Mark Villata, the council’s executive director, said in April.

That potential for overproduction concerns Marthedal, he said.

The creation of the blueberry commission is not likely to mean the dissolution of the California Blueberry Association.

“Indications are that the association, even with the commission, serves a purpose,” Marthedal said. “But it may be a more low-profile organization.”

UPDATED: California Blueberry Commission could be operational by spring