The USDA has approved an increase in the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council’s assessment, moving it from $12 a ton to $18 a ton beginning with the 2014 crop.
The agency posted the assessment increase in the federal register on Sept. 30, one day before the government shut down, said Doug Krahmer, an Oregon producer who is chair of the council’s finance committee and serves as the council’s treasurer.
The USDA rejected a request to double the assessment in 2009 after a majority of comments it received opposed the increase.
Krahmer said comments in support of the increase far outnumbered those in opposition to it this time around.
“An overwhelming majority of the comments they received were in favor of the increase,” Krahmer said.
“There was a real feeling among growers across the country that we need to step up research efforts to be commiserate to other commodities that compete for stomach space,” said Dave Brazelton of Fall Creek Nursery in Lowell, Ore., who is chair of the council’s health research committee.
The increased assessment is expected to raise an additional $1.8 million, with an additional $1 million or so coming from domestic production, and an additional $800,000 coming from the increased assessments on imports.
The increased revenue is expected to pay for an expanded promotional program and to fund human health research.
“We made it clear to our members that the additional assessment revenue will be used to fund human health studies and for additional promotions to try and stay ahead of our ever increasing production,” Krahmer said.
Blueberry production has increased every year since 2000, when the USHBC was formed, Krahmer said.
Just in the last three years, production of highbush blueberries has increased from 532 million pounds in 2011 to 643 million pounds of estimated production in 2013.
Brazelton said the goal of a business plan advanced by the council calls for increasing the average domestic per-person consumption from 32 ounces a year in 2012 to 50 ounces by 2017.
Krahmer said the organization could not have afforded to fund both the increased promotions and the human health research without the increased assessment revenue.
Krahmer characterized the human health study as expensive research, but one that is necessary to establish a “qualified health message” that can be used in promotions.
He said the USHBC on Oct. 4 set its 2014 budget at $5.3 million. Assessments from imports jumped from $1.6 million in 2013 to an estimated $2.4 million in 2014 under the budget.
The council does not project domestic production ahead of time, given that it doesn’t budget for 2014 domestic production until after the summer harvest, Krahmer said.
The council uses assessments from imports to fund current year programs, he said.