Farmers should find a market for their blueberries before planting their first bush because there’s no shortage of supplies, experts say.
Blueberry production has climbed in recent years, so new growers need to find a niche rather than assume buyers will readily absorb more of the crop, according to speakers at Oregon State University’s recent Blueberry School.
“If you are just sticking 20 acres in the ground because you like blueberries, you’re going to be eating a lot of them yourself probably,” said Rod Cook, president of Ag-View Consulting, who tracks supply trends.
Inventories of frozen blueberries — traditionally an important sales channel for Northwest growers — have been mounting, with production outpacing sales, he said.
According to USDA’s most recent statistics, more than 187.5 million pounds of blueberries were in cold storage in late January, up 9 percent since last year.
To put that in perspective, there were fewer than 83 million pounds of blueberries in cold storage at the same point in 2007, the last time OSU held its Blueberry School.
While frozen inventories have continued to trend higher, the market should remain stable if blueberry usage also increases, Cook said.
“Big numbers don’t scare me as long as we’re seeing movement in big numbers as well,” he said.
To compete in the current market, new growers need to evaluate and develop their strengths — for example, if they have experience with organic production or are situated to capitalize on seasonal gaps in supply, Cook said.
Farmers should also identify their weaknesses, such as a lack of labor or cooling equipment, he said.
“The more planning you do, the better off you’re going to be,” said Jeff Malensky, vice president of international sales for the Oregon Berry Packing Co.
Since the early 2000s, farmers have increasingly been expected to document their field and irrigation practices to ensure a safe product, he said.
In the fresh market, retailers have also become more selective as blueberry production has grown, said Derek Peacock, procurement manager for the HBF International fruit marketing company.
Buyers want blueberries to be traceable and are asking to verify information about pesticide usage and other practices with third party auditors, he said.
It’s also important for farmers to work with packers and marketers to plan for when large quantities become available, Peacock said.
As long as farmers are prepared to put in extra effort to mitigate risks for suppliers, “there is room in the marketplace for more fruit,” he said.
Though conditions are tough, growers can still be profitable if they economize skillfully, said Bernadine Strik, berry crops specialist at OSU.
“This is a market that separates the wheat from the chaff,” she said.
While growers have some room to cut down on fertilizer and other costs, they should be careful to avoid creating more expensive problems in the future, Strik said.
Pruning is the most expensive use of labor behind harvesting, so farmers may be tempted to be less diligent in lean years, she said.
However, inconsistent pruning will hurt yields in the short term and lead to structural problems in blueberry bushes over time, Strik said.