If the U.S. and China can resolve big-ticket trade issues by next month, the breakthrough could benefit U.S. fresh blueberry exports, according to a trade expert.
Trade discussions between the U.S. and China are approaching a March 1 deadline, after which the Trump administration has pledged to further increase tariffs on Chinese exports.
While U.S. fresh blueberry exports aren’t a top priority in the talks, negotiators could make headway on such subordinate issues as part of a broader deal, said Matt Lantz, vice president of global access for the Bryant Christie market development firm.
However, if the March 1 deadline passes and trade tensions between the U.S. and China escalate, it’s unlikely China will open its market to fresh U.S. blueberries independent of wider trade discussions, he said.
“As far as China is concerned, it’s either going to be feast or famine,” Lantz said at the Oregon Blueberry Conference Feb. 4 in Salem, Ore.
Obtaining access to the Chinese market can be tough for U.S. agricultural products due to the “extremely political” approach that China takes toward accepting new products, he said.
The Chinese government only accepts new goods if it’s angling to increase exports of its own products, which means discussions over U.S. crops can effectively languish for years while pest risks are assessed, Lantz said.
Exporters of fresh U.S. blueberries have been pressing their case for about six years, compared to about 20 years for fresh U.S. potatoes, he said.
“Things can wait on the Chinese agenda for a long time,” Lantz said.
Aside from the trade dispute with China, exporters of U.S. farm goods are disadvantaged by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, he said.
While tariffs won’t rise on U.S. goods due to that withdrawal, competing suppliers will face lower duties in important markets such as Japan, he said.
The U.S. blueberry industry would be better off if it increased exports, leaving a smaller domestic supply of the crop, Lantz said. “Oregon is incredibly well positioned for exports to Asia.”
Exports of frozen U.S. high-bush blueberries have generally been outpaced by frozen low-bush “wild” blueberries, said John Shelford, strategic adviser to the Naturipe fruit company.
Last year, the U.S. exported about 118 million pounds of low-bush frozen blueberries, compared to about 25 million pounds of high-bush frozen blueberries, he said.
“We aren’t doing very good in export in the high-bush business,” Shelford said.
Meanwhile, countries in South America have geared their blueberry production toward the export market.
A notable example is Peru, which has converted a desert landscape along its coast into productive farmland through irrigation, said David Brazelton, chairman of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery, a blueberry plant producer based in Lowell, Ore.
Since 2016, Peru’s annual blueberry production has nearly tripled, from 58 million pounds to 164 million pounds, Brazelton said. “They are very globally focused, as is Chile.”
In North America, production has leveled off due to slowed planting and weather problems, with blueberry output dropping from about 723 million pounds in 2015 to 686 million pounds last year, he said.
While other major blueberry states have encountered yield problems, Oregon achieved the status of top blueberry producer in 2018 with about 130 million pounds of the crop, Brazelton said. The Northwest in general has grown stronger in processed and fresh market blueberry production.
“Seven out of ten berries sold during the peak (summer) period are coming from the Pacific Northwest,” he said.