Blueberries get boost from S. Korea
Oregon only state cleared to ship the crop to South Korea
By MITCH LIES
Despite tariffs and additional crop-management requirements, Oregon blueberry growers and packers have embraced the newly opened South Korean market.
With about a month to go in the 2012 fresh blueberry season, exports of Oregon blueberries to South Korea are nearing the industry's first year goal of 500,000 pounds.
"We are very pleased," said Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Blueberry Commission. "To be at that benchmark already is a home run."
Oregon is the only state in the U.S. cleared to ship fresh blueberries to Korea.
Through Sept. 4, Oregon's 2012 fresh blueberry exports to South Korea stood at 461,178 pounds. That ranks the country second only to Japan's total of 889,751 pounds, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and well above the other top Asian market, Taiwan, which had imported 259,473 pounds of Oregon blueberries.
This comes despite a 40.5 percent tariff on fresh blueberries from Oregon. The tariff will drop 5 percent annually until zeroing out in 2020 under a trade agreement established between U.S. and Korean officials.
The promising first year is particularly rewarding, Ostlund said, given the long-term effort that went into gaining access to the market, and the extra steps growers and packers must go through to enter it.
To register for the Korean market, growers are required to trap and treat for certain insects, record findings and meet other protocols.
Packers are required to segregate fruit destined for Korea, label it separately, in addition to meeting other protocols hammered out in years of negotiations between U.S. and Korea.
"When you consider trapping, spraying, isolation, labeling, there was quite a bit of added cost to make those berries Korean ready," said Jim Cramer, administrator of the commodity inspection division of ODA. "But this has the potential of being a very good market for our fresh blueberry industry, so they are making an investment."
The industry started working on the market in approximately 2002 and stepped up efforts in 2008, Ostlund said.
"You look back and you think, 'Wow, this was a lot of work,'" Ostlund said. "Sometimes ignorance is bliss. You don't know what you're getting into until you are so far into it that you can't let go."
"It feels gratifying," Cramer said. "This has been a long haul, and it's been a real team approach. Everybody should, and I think does, feel stoked."
Success wasn't always assured, Cramer said.
"There was a lot of pressure on Oregon producers and the whole team to get it right," Cramer said, "because we've known all along there would be other states and other regions that would want to enter the Korean market."
"It's nice to get past this first year," Ostlund said. "We easily could have landed on our nose."
Shipments started slowly, Ostlund said, as Korean buyers preferred Korean-grown blueberries over Oregon's until Korea's fresh market season ended in mid-July.
Exports picked up dramatically in late July and held steady through August, Ostlund said.
Ostlund said Oregon's future in Korea looks bright, despite the fact the market could be thinned in future years. British Columbia officials reportedly are working with Korean officials to set up an export program similar to Oregon's.
Also, Chile recently gained access to the Korean fresh blueberry market. Chile's fresh market season doesn't compete with Oregon's, however, so isn't expected to have much effect on Oregon sales, Ostlund said.