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Wild blueberry prices plummet

Don’t expect higher prices anytime soon, producers are warned

February 11, 2010  By Dan Woolley

Spurred on by a drastic drop in their initial field price, members of the Wild Blueberry Producers Association of Nova Scotia have directed their board to set up a working group to look at the prices paid to growers.

Dave Sangster, WBPANS executive director, said his organization’s board is drafting a strategic plan for the industry and findings from the working group, which is also examining other economic factors influencing the long-term financial equilibrium of the province’s blueberry industry, could be included in the plan.According to information shared at the organization’s recent annual meeting, field prices have plummeted from $1.05 a pound in 2007 to 60 cents a pound in 2008 and just 35 cents a pound in 2009, identical to the field price received by wild blueberry producers in 1993.

Pressed by a grower at the meeting at to why the Wild Blueberry Association of North America’s (WBANA) Canadian branch is not doing something about the low price for the fruit, the Canadian branch’s executive director, Neri Vautour, emphasized that WBANA’s mandate is not to buy, sell or set a price for wild blueberries, but to stimulate market demand though promotion.

“What industry hasn’t been in trouble the past two years?” said Vautour after being pushed by complaints of “unfair” field prices. “I know what growers are receiving is not right. But what cranberry growers are receiving is not right, what pork producers are receiving is not right, and what beef producers are receiving is not right.”

As to growers complaints about the quarter-cent levy per pound on growers for WBANA, Vautour wondered, “How can you take the growers’ money and not be concerned about the price? Without WBANA’s promotion, where would the industry be?”

If wild blueberries cannot be sold by processors at the current low price of 35 cents per pound, he noted, “You might get 25 cents a pound next year.”

Vautour said the high bush blueberry industry is asking for one cent a pound from all North American growers of cultivated blueberries to promote their fruit. “They want to create an international organization of high bush countries.”

Given the market outlook, Peter Rideout, a marketing specialist with the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, cautioned WBPANS members not to expect any return to high prices in the short term, as the market will be “price-driven” with wild blueberries facing more competition from other fruits.

Rideout said the best indication of the competitiveness of wild blueberries is the fact “you are still getting a 25-cent premium per pound over cultivated (blueberries) in a weak market.”

The big challenge in the next three to five years, with an expected one billion pound high bush blueberry crop internationally, will be to maintain the 25-cent premium of wild blueberries against a lower cost ingredient.

North American blueberry supplies (wild and cultivated) have increased significantly since 1994 when production totaled 325 million pounds of high bush and 135 million pounds of wild blueberries. In 2008, 609 million pounds of high bush and 255 million pounds of wild blueberries were produced, said Rideout, who sees a clear trend in the next few years toward an annual harvest of one billion pounds.

High bush planting has now slowed in the western U.S. and has stopped elsewhere in North America, as there is now almost no demand for blueberries in the U.S., he explained.

Dr. Dave Yarborough, a blueberry specialist with the University of Maine, told the WBPANS members that the western states and British Columbia have taken the lead on where blueberries are grown in North America.

B.C., said Dr. Yarborough, has the largest area of cultivated blueberries in the north – 18,000 acres – and is producing 75 million pounds of fruit a year, about half of which goes into the processed market.

Because of its mild climate and high-density plantings, the southern U.S. has very high productivity at a lower cost per pound, he said, noting the west and south are squeezing the traditional blueberry growing areas of the east and Midwest.

Although 70 per cent of the world blueberry crop is still grown in North America, “there are places growing blueberries that have never seen a blueberry,” said Dr. Yarborough.

South American cultivated blueberry production has grown by 20 per cent is the past 10 years, he explained, adding that Chile now produces 87 million pounds of high bush blueberries while Argentina contributes another 25 million pounds.

Dr. Yarborough also said South America now has 40,000 acres in production with Rideout adding that 6,000 new acres were planted in South America in 2007 and 2008, mostly in Chile.

The high prices for wild blueberries of a few years ago are down now due to high bush expansion, Rideout said, noting that increasingly, Chilean berries are exported as frozen fruit and have saturated the fresh market.

Elsewhere, European cultivated blueberry expansion has slowed with 6,900 acres in Poland, 5,000 acres in Germany, and 500 acres in Britain, said Dr. Yarborough, adding additional acres in France, Spain and Portugal are mainly servicing the fresh market.

As for China, although it does have some quality issues, it also has the advantage of cheap labor, he said, and the Chinese are focusing on the high-end nutraceutical market.

Dr. Yarborough forecasts that by 2012, world blueberry production will be at 1.3 billion pounds.

“What we really need to do is get those (wild) berries into the retail market,” he said. “In winter, wild frozen blueberries are far superior to the plastic pack of Chilean high bush and they taste better.”

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