Competing factions within the blackberry industry may set their differences aside to form a national program aimed at promoting the crop’s health benefits.
The movement to create a new research and promotion checkoff overseen by USDA appears to be gaining momentum among growers of fresh market blackberries, processed blackberries and imported blackberries.
Blackberry imports are often blamed for depressing crop prices for U.S. producers, who face higher labor costs than farmers in Mexico or Chile.
However, imposing a checkoff fee on imported blackberries would greatly increase the amount of money available to boost the crop’s prominence among consumers, potentially helping domestic and foreign growers alike.
“This is not going to resolve competition, but it is going to grow the market and demand for everybody,” said Debby Wechsler, executive secretary of the North American Raspberry & Blackberry Association.
It’s unclear whether distrust among the various segments of the blackberry industry will hinder the checkoff effort, but other industries — such as blueberries and avocados — have overcome their suspicions to form viable programs, she said.
“These conflicts are going to be around, but if there’s more of a market for everybody, it will lessen the difficulty of the competition,” Wechsler said.
Under the proposal currently being mulled by the blackberry industry, fresh blackberries would be assessed at 1 cent per pound while processed blackberries would be assessed at half a percent of their dollar value.
Fresh blackberry prices tend to fluctuate frequently but don’t change as much year-to-year on average, which is why the constant 1 cent rate is appropriate.
Processed blackberry prices, on the other hand, can vary widely from year to year, so assessing them based on value avoids penalizing growers during high-volume, low-margin years.
These assessments would generate roughly $2 million a year for research and promotion, with about three-quarters of that amount coming from importers.
The Oregon Raspberry & Blackberry Commission unanimously voted to support the creation of the national checkoff during its most recent meeting.
If the checkoff becomes a reality, half the money generated by the ORBC’s 1 percent assessment fee would go to the new research and promotion program.
“We would not be assessing our growers any additional money,” said Julie Schedeen, a farmer near Boring, Ore., and a commission member.
Conducting a single human trial as part of a health benefit study can cost $100,000, which is too expensive for the ORBC to bear alone, Schedeen said.
Combining money on a national scale would be a more realistic way to pay for such studies, which have been strongly correlated with growing demand for blueberries, she said.
“That is the genesis of the effort,” Schedeen said of health benefit research.
There would likely be restrictions on the type of research conducted with national checkoff dollars.
For example, large private berry companies don’t want to fund breeding programs to create public cultivars, since they fund their own breeding efforts, Schedeen said.
For that reason, ORBC would continue funding public breeding, since license fees for private varieties can be too steep for some growers, she said.
Cultivars must also be adapted to specific growing conditions, Schedeen said. “Breeding is very regional.”
If blackberry growers and importers arrive at a consensus to move forward with the checkoff concept, they would need to form a steering committee that would submit an application to USDA, said Darcy Kochis, ORBC’s marketing director.
Provided everything goes smoothly, an application submitted next March or April would allow for a farmer referendum by August or September, Kochis said.
The referendum could provide each grower with an equal vote or their votes could be weighted based on volume, she said. A third option would require a majority of growers and a majority of blackberry volume to support the proposal.
If the proposal passed, the checkoff program could be in place for 2019, applying to growers who produce at least 30,000 pounds per year.
At this point, there’s no proposed increase to existing Oregon assessment rates, Kochis said.
Darren Sinn, a farmer near Silverton, Ore., said he favors the concept because growers of processed blackberries would be able to influence the program.
“We get a seat at the table,” Sinn said.
While domestic farmers may have legitimate concerns about working closely with competitors, it makes sense to cooperate on boosting overall demand, he said. “We have to view it as a separate issue, because we’re going to be competing with them no matter what.”