As global demand for fresh blueberries continues to rise, consistent quality will be key for U.S. growers to capture new growth in the marketplace, according to an industry analyst.
He also charts increasing production and exports from around the world, which has led to flattening prices and increased the availability of fresh blueberries year-round.
David Magana, vice president and senior analyst for RaboResearch based in Fresno, Calif., said more consumers are buying blueberries for their healthfulness, convenience and taste — what he calls the "trifecta of success."
"Blueberries are one of the most healthful items in the fruit space, and one of the most convenient," said Magana, who has authored a series of reports on the evolution of the blueberry industry. "Kids love it, and moms love it because the kids are eating something healthy."
The focus for growers should be ensuring consumers come away with a positive eating experience every time they buy fresh blueberries, he added.
Magana compared what is happening now in the blueberry sector to avocados. Twenty-five years ago, he said avocados did not enjoy the availability and quality they do today.
"Now, more and more consumers are falling in love with avocados and buying them more frequently," Magana said. "I think something similar is happening with blueberries."
His research highlights breeding programs that are developing new blueberry cultivars with better flavor and firmness and longer shelf life. These cultivars can also benefit farms by improving efficiency, yield and potential for mechanical harvesting.
Increased competition is causing the price for blueberries to flatten, making margins tighter for growers. Global highbush blueberry production exceeded 506,566 total acres in 2020, and while North America is considered the cradle of the blueberry industry, growing regions are rapidly expanding in South America and Asia.
Peru is now the world's largest blueberry exporter, with peak shipments from September to November. More than half of Peruvian exports, or 53%, are shipped to the U.S., though Peru plans to double exports to China in 2021-22.
Blueberry production in China is also on the rise, increasing 48% over the last five years and reaching 347,000 metric tons in 2020. "A notable investment from about 20 multinational firms in China will continue boosting this industry growth," Magana's report states.
Oregon and Washington are the two largest blueberry producing states by volume. Blueberries are the 11th most valuable agricultural commodity in Oregon, attracting $119.6 million in sales in 2020.
To maintain or increase their market share, Magana said Northwest growers and companies can focus on selling to consumers and retailers that value locally grown produce, and where they are willing to pay a premium for local products.
"I think labels will be increasingly relevant," he said.
The report also outlines other winning strategies for the blueberry market, including more focus on mechanical harvesting and innovation in packaging.
"Growers have been doing a great job in adopting cultivars that grow well in their regions, and also they've been conducting successful trials on mechanical harvesting to reduce their labor cost," Magana said.
Ultimately, he said the strategy comes back to quality and consistency.
"In the report, we estimate the capital consumption will continue to increase," he said. "How can I make sure that I get that (positive) eating experience every time I purchase a blueberry?"