Aliya Hall/Capital Press
Supplies of frozen blueberries and blackberries in the U.S. have plunged since last year, but the price impacts for the two crops have been uneven.
The amount of frozen blueberries in U.S. cold storage has dropped 20 percent since last autumn, from 332 million pounds to 266 million pounds, according to USDA.
Weather problems across the U.S. reduced yields, but blueberry quality was good enough for about 60 percent of the crop to go into the fresh market, said Rod Cook, president of Ag-View Consulting, which tracks the market.
Usually, roughly half the blueberry crop goes into cold storage while the other half is sold fresh, he said. “Not only were we quite short, but the percentage that went fresh was large,” Cook said.
Prices for “individually quick frozen” blueberries received by processors jumped from about 85 cents per pound to $1.20 per pound, though they’ve since settled at about $1.10 per pound, he said.
Price spikes often prompt food manufacturers to pull back on frozen blueberry purchases, but the recent increase isn’t likely to have a severe impact, he said.
“It’s not outrageously priced, so I don’t think you’ll see a massive fallout in demand,” Cook said.
New blueberry plantings will inevitably cause production to rise over the long term, but growers are increasingly geared toward the fresh market, he said.
“Almost nobody designs a farm around processed,” he said.
Reduced frozen blueberry inventories may also boost prices for next year’s crop, said John Shelford, strategic adviser to the Naturipe Farms food company.
If buyers consume frozen blueberries at the same rate as last year, cold storage inventories of the crop will fall to 100 million pounds before next harvest, he said.
“If we see that, it will be a price increase,” Shelford said. “Do I think we can do that? Yes. Do I think it’s a slam dunk? No.”
Cold storage inventories of frozen blackberries have decreased 18 percent since last autumn, from 38.7 million pounds to 31.6 million pounds, according to USDA.
Processors have seen a price increase — from less than 90 cents per pounds to about $1.10 per pound — but it’s lower than expected in light of lower production, said Dave Dunn, general manager of the Willamette Valley Fruit Co.
“The crop was way down but the price isn’t very good,” he said. “People were expecting more than that, I think.”
A cold, wet spring generally suppressed yields of blackberries, which had already suffered from winter cold damage, said Tom Peerbolt, a crop consultant.
“It’s been a very unsettling year for berry crops across the board,” he said.
Demand for frozen blackberries has been tepid because food manufacturers are sourcing them from Mexico rather than the U.S., which has prevented prices from rising more sharply, Dunn said.
“The low production we’ve had this year has not turned into a high price year, which is historically what would happen,” said Ken Van Dyke, a Cornelius, Ore., farmer and board member of the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission.
Chile has large amounts of leftover frozen blackberries and is likely motivated to sell them quickly to make room in freezers for the next crop, which is harvested in January, Van Dyke said.
Weak prices for blackberries are convincing some farmers to shift into more attractive crops, such as hazelnuts, he said. “The margins just haven’t been strong enough to keep the interest of a lot of growers.”
Competition from South American countries, where labor costs are much lower, poses a long-term threat to U.S. berry production unless trade policies are changed, said Mike Townsend, a grower and processor near Fairview, Ore.
“The U.S. grower is going to get squeezed until there’s less U.S. production,” Townsend said.