Sectors of the U.S. blueberry industry clashed Tuesday at a daylong hearing before the U.S. International Trade Commission, offering competing explanations for declining farmer profits.
The American Blueberry Growers Alliance blamed rising Latin American imports in the spring and fall, robbing farmers of lucrative early- and late-season sales.
A rival group, the Blueberry Coalition for Progress and Health, said imports aren’t hurting U.S. farmers. It attributed the low prices to a “massive increase in supply” from Washington and Oregon.
Growers alliance chairman, Georgia farmer Jerome Crosby, called the claim that imports aren’t dragging down prices “comical.”
“The world I live in, it’s a problem,” he said.
The trade commission heard the conflicting testimony, as well as dueling legal and economic analyses, as part of its probe into whether foreign trading partners are seriously harming U.S. blueberry growers.
The Trump administration initiated the investigation at the request of blueberry growers. The commission will report its findings to the Biden White House. The Washington, Oregon and California blueberry commissions are helping fund the investigation.
The growers alliance argues that imports once complemented U.S. production by ensuring fresh blueberries were available in grocery stores year-round, helping make the fruit popular with consumers.
However, over the past five years Mexico, Chile, Peru and Argentina have started to encroach on the U.S. growing season, according to the alliance.
Traditionally, U.S. blueberry growers relied on early- and late-harvest sales to make up for low mid-summer prices. The growers alliance links the growing volume of “shoulder season” imports to declining spring and fall prices.
Representatives of the Latin American countries, as well as Canada, pushed back, saying their farmers aren’t responsible for falling prices.
The trade commission also received a letter Tuesday signed by 18 federal lawmakers, 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, asking the commission to respect “cross-border trade and consumer preference.”
The blueberry coalition, representing U.S.-based companies that grow or buy blueberries in other countries, pinned the blamed for low prices on U.S. farmers competing with each other.
“Prices crater in the summer months when domestic production saturates the market,” said Soren Bjorn, president of the Americas for Driscoll’s, a fruit seller based in Watsonville, Calif.
Rutgers University economist Thomas Prusa said blueberry production and employment are growing, signs of a healthy industry, though prices for the industry deteriorate in the late summer.
“This is attributable to a massive increase in supply from their American growers in Oregon and Washington, not from import sources,” he said.
Testifying for the growers alliance, Washington Blueberry Commission executive director Alan Schreiber said growing U.S. production reflected decisions that farmers made before imports rose.
“This planting surge that originated many years ago is over,” he said.
Washington blueberry farmers once got as much as $11 a pound for late-season blueberries, Schreiber said. In 2020, the highest price was $6 a pound, he said.
“It is unfathomable that anyone with a straight face would say that blueberries are not coming in during our season,” he said. “They are targeting our market, and July is next.”
Based on new plantings in other countries, the blueberry alliance projected that imports will double in two years, providing more than enough berries to meet U.S. demand.
“Imagine what’s going to happen to us when the imports have doubled,” Schreiber said.