Blueberry harvest starts slowly; volumes recover


Issue Date: April 24, 2019
By Ching Lee
An employee harvests blueberries for Berry Fresh Produce in Coalinga. The company says it expects heavier volumes of California-grown berries in a couple of weeks.
Photo/courtesy Berry Fresh Produce
Early-season California blue- berries, such as those being harvested in Coalinga for Berry Fresh Produce have encountered increasing competition from late-season Mexican varieties.
Photo/courtesy Berry Fresh Produce

Blueberry farmers hoping to capture some of the early-season market when less supply lifts prices are slowed by cooler weather, which has delayed harvest.

Though they expect to market more volume in the coming weeks, with good-quality fruit, growers and marketers say larger crops in other states and offshore have also pressured the market this year.

Harvest is about seven to 10 days behind schedule, said Todd Sanders, executive director of the California Blueberry Commission, but he noted that could change quickly with warmer temperatures arriving this week.

He estimated the crop will be 25% to 30% larger than last year, which saw production drop by 20% to 30% due to frost damage. The bigger crop this year is also related to more acreage in production and more high-density plantings, he noted. California blueberry acreage stood at 8,755 in 2018, an increase of nearly 33 percent from 2017, according to the commission.

Describing the harvested crop so far as "good size, good flavor and good quality," Sanders added, "it's looking to be a pretty decent year."

San Diego County grower Bill Steed, whose crop is about three weeks behind schedule, said cooler temperatures, which allow the berries to ripen at a slower pace, should lend more flavor complexities to the fruit as it sizes. After last year's late freeze wiped out more than 80% of his crop, he said he expects a "normal, good year" this season.

With plenty of fruit on the market coming from Georgia, Florida and Mexico, Jerry Connery, who markets blueberries for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, said there's been no supply gap this time of year, which typically boosts market prices. When California hits peak season by mid-May, Georgia blueberries should be waning by then, and that could improve market conditions, he said.

"But I personally doubt it," he added. "I think it's a bumper crop. I think it's an excellent time for retailers to promote. Blueberries will be promotable all summer long."

Unlike other packers and marketers that sell blueberries year-round with imported fruit, Heidi Devine, purchase manager for Devine Organics, a grower-shipper-packer in Fresno, said the company tries to hit the early-season market, which is the most lucrative. But with "quite a bit of volume" still coming out of Mexico and with California harvest "moving a lot slower than usual," she said she has not been able to take full advantage of that marketing window this year.

"Having product in April and May is extremely important for us," Devine said. "We still have some; it's just been slower. When you see this cool weather, you just imagine how much more successful it could've been had it been warmer."

Historically, market prices for blueberries in March and early April have been "fantastic," said Gunnar Avinelis, CEO of Agricare, which manages blueberry farms in California from Kern County to Fresno County, and in Oregon. To get in on those early-market prices, growers try to push the maturity of their berries by having some production in hoop houses, he said. He started harvest on his covered berries about two weeks ago. With Mexico staying in the market longer, prices have not been as good as in the past, he said.

"This year, in particular, we're starting to see the impact of Mexico's increasing volume in their later varieties," he added.

Whereas Mexico used to be finished by the time California enters the market, its late-season varieties are now overlapping with the Golden State's early season, lowering market prices by a sum Avinelis described as "pretty significant."

Not only is Mexico shipping more volume, he said, but its varieties have gotten better. It's a trend he said he's observed in other South American producers as well, noting that Peru and Chile also have become bigger players in recent years. That has led to more steady, year-round supplies in the market and fewer pricing spikes that California growers have enjoyed.

Even though some growers prefer less competition from imports, Avinelis said offshore supplies will come in anyway and he'd rather they be good-quality fruit, which could help increase overall U.S. blueberry consumption.

"The eating experience dictates future buying," he said. "As a blueberry grower, I want more people to be buying regularly throughout the year, so there's more customers pulling volume faster in my primary (marketing) windows."

For this year at least, some of that imported fruit has been "problematic," and buyers are "looking forward to California and Oregon fruit," said Peter Hill of Berry Fresh Produce, a grower-distributor in Los Angeles County. The company's California growing regions include Santa Maria and areas of Fresno County, with imported production from Chile, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico and Canada.

Because of bad fruit coming from Chile, Hill noted a lot of it had to be dumped. Though volumes coming from its farms in Santa Maria and Coalinga are so far light, he said he expects heavier volumes in a couple of weeks.

"We're coming into the California season strong and we're going to have plenty of supplies," he added.

To alleviate pressure on the domestic market when there's a large U.S. crop, Sanders said the commission has been trying to expand California's export market, specifically in Japan, Canada, Mexico and Southeast Asia. He noted that even though demand for blueberries continues to grow, production has been increasing at a faster rate.

More growers are transitioning to organic, which he described as the sector's "biggest growth category." Part of that growth, he said, has been helped by a change in the U.S. national organic standards, which now allow container production and the use of substrates.

Avinelis, whose production is primarily organic, said growers also are farming organically at a larger scale—devoting 200 or more acres rather than 5 to 10. Much of this growth, he added, is driven by price premiums for organic, higher demand and "a number of rough years" in the conventional market.

"And a lot of the retailers are pushing it," he said. "Their margins remain really strong when they sell organic. It's rising rapidly and I don't see that stopping anytime soon."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.