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North Carolina blueberry growers band together in marketing program

Fruit and vegetable crops offer great potential to Southeastern farmers. But any financial benefit that might be gained will be minimal without a sound and aggressive marketing program.

The blueberry growers in the vicinity of White Lake in eastern North Carolina have been marketing their production together for more than 60 years and have learned that selling their product in a number of different market areas has helped maximize the amount of their production that is sold.

They do this through their growers' cooperative, called Carolina Blueberry Association (CBA), which is located in Garland near White Lake. Dennis Harrell, general manager of CBA, explains that there are 28 member farmers, and they deliver their berries to the 18,000-square-foot facility.

It is sold primarily in two forms:

  • Fresh: The members hand-harvest a portion of their crop and pack it in plastic clam shell pint containers, then deliver it to the facility. The association cools the berries to 32 degrees F. and loads them on trucks for distribution. All of the fresh product is sold in North America.

    “About half of our fresh berries go to markets in the southern United States, while another 40 percent goes to New England and 10 percent is exported to Canada,” says Harrell. “Other than Canada, a market we have had for a number of years, we are not promoting our fresh blueberries for export because we don't have the production to support it.”

  • Frozen: Farmers harvest the rest of their crop mechanically and deliver it to the facility, where it is separated and graded, packaged in 30-pound corrugated boxes and frozen.

Much of the machine-harvested crop eventually goes into poly-lined bags for sale in the frozen food sections of grocery stores. Also, some is purchased by yogurt companies and made into a puree.

The market for frozen berries has traditionally been in the United States, but that is changing.

“Normally, we sell most of our frozen product domestically,” says Harrell. “But this year, about 90 percent of it went to international markets like Japan, Germany and Denmark.”

Individual farmers sell some of their fresh berries direct to consumers at roadside stands and farmers markets. A few process some of their machine harvested berries as jams, jellies or juices.

To date, CBA has not processed any end products but it is a possibility for the future, says Harrell.

But it went into one sideline this season: CBA began importing blueberries from Uruguay in South America to redistribute to regular customers. Since the Uruguayan season lasts for a month in October, their berries don't compete at all with Carolina blueberries, which come on the market from mid-May to the end of August.

South America is one of many areas around the world where blackberry production is growing, says Marieke de Rijke, assistant vice-president of food and agribusiness research for the Dutch banking group Rabobank. “Uruguay had no blueberry plantings two years ago, but it planted 1,500 acres in 2007.”

Chile and Argentina had already increased their plantings. “Europe is likely to increase also,” de Rijke says.

Another source of competition for American blueberry producers could be China, she says. “Currently, Japan is an important export market for U.S. blueberries, and because of the proximity to Japan, an exportable surplus of blueberries in China could potentially find its way into the Japanese market.”

In the short-term, though, that scenario is unlikely: Production levels of blueberries in China are still rather low. Also, the Chinese producers are still learning lessons about producing quality, and their quality needs to be relatively high if they hope to sell to Japan.

To try to minimize potential losses in the future, says de Rijke, the U.S. blueberry council has taken a proactive strategy of encouraging blueberry consumption in China now. The goal is to stimulate Chinese domestic demand, so that all blueberries that are produced in China will be consumed in the domestic market and no excess production is available for exports. Any Chinese blueberries available for export would result in unwelcome competition for the United States.

“We will see an expansion of production on a global scale,” says de Rijke. “Acres are increasing now, and there will be a time lag until the production reaches the market. We would expect prices to level off, and it seems likely that blueberry prices won't stay as high in the future as they are now.”

TAGS: Vegetables
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