If all goes well, U.S. blueberry growers could be shipping fresh blueberries to Vietnam and the Philippines by 2016.
“You never know about these things,” said Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, after returning from a trade mission to the two countries. “But we have a desire. They have a desire. At this point, it appears that we are headed down the same path, and it is in all of our countries’ interest that we move through this as quickly as possible.”
Participants in the 10-day mission, which concluded Nov. 5, included representatives of Oregon and Washington potato commissions, Oregon onions and officials from the Oregon and Washington state departments of agriculture, including Oregon Director Katy Coba and Washington Director Bud Hover.
Ostlund, the mission’s sole blueberry representative, asked if he could participate after learning about the mission last fall.
“It was perfect timing on several fronts,” he said. “I knew that there was interest in the blueberry industry to open those two markets for fresh and frozen and that the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council was working with USDA on an application for access.”
The council subsequently submitted the application in September, Ostlund said.
“I wanted to test the waters and see what the reaction was to allowing blueberries to come in to those countries,” he said.
Ostlund said the mission gave him access he couldn’t have obtained were he traveling strictly with industry members.
“For me to be with these two directors with dignitary status really helped open up access to Philippine and Vietnamese governments,” he said.
Government officials in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Manila expressed keen interest in importing U.S. fresh blueberries, Ostlund said. Consumer interest in Vietnam and the Philippines, meanwhile, rivals that of South Korea, he said, which has become Oregon’s largest export market for fresh blueberries in just three years since gaining access.
“Like in South Korea, they read about blueberries in publications and on the Internet,” he said. “They read about the health benefits, and they want blueberries.”
“The demand for Oregon blueberries continues to be one of our best success stories,” Coba said. “We have seen the same kind of enthusiasm and interest from other Asian markets for our fresh blueberries as we saw in Korea a few years ago.
“It’s exciting to see our industry lead the initiative to pursue other markets like Vietnam and the Philippines, and we hope to gain access in those locations, as well,” Coba said.
Oregon shipped approximately 500,000 pounds of fresh blueberries to Korea in 2012, the first year it gained access, doubled that in 2013 and this year shipped 1.5 million pounds into the market.
Japan, formerly Oregon’s largest export market for fresh blueberries, typically imports just under 1 million pounds of blueberries a year.
Oregon is the only U.S. state allowed to ship fresh blueberries into South Korea. It took 10 years and a combined effort of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the USDA and the Oregon Blueberry Commission to crack open the market.
Promotional work by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council and the Oregon Department of Agriculture helped cultivate interest in the market so when it opened, consumer interest was high.
Ostlund is hoping for similar good timing in the Vietnamese and Philippine markets.
“The trick is to get the timing right, so that when you do gain access, you are not starting fresh with trying to build demand,” Ostlund said. “So that when you get the green light, you are already out of the starting blocks and you are ready to go.”
Ostlund doesn’t expect it to be as difficult to gain market access to the Philippines and Vietnam as it was for South Korea, which has domestic blueberry production. Farmers in the Philippines and Vietnam, which have tropical climates, cannot grow blueberries.
“We don’t have those kind of (phytosanitary and competitive) issues with these countries,” Ostlund said.