A little over a year after Vietnam began accepting fresh blueberries from the U.S., the Philippines has followed suit.
The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service announced earlier this month that the Philippines will formally open its market to U.S. fresh highbush blueberries on May 24.
“It’s been a long time coming and we’re thrilled with the news,” said Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Blueberry Commission.
The development means the U.S. is the only country allowed official access to the Philippine market. “With formal market access in place for the entire Philippine market, multiple trade contacts forecast U.S. sales could reach $500,000 this season and exceed $1 million in succeeding years if there is a concerted marketing effort to increase consumer awareness on the availability, quality and health benefits of U.S. fresh blueberries,” the USDA wrote in the May 13 announcement.
While the entire U.S. highbush blueberry industry benefits from this development, it was Ostlund and trade officials from the Oregon Department of Agriculture who have done the lion’s share of work in opening the Philippines to fresh U.S. blueberries.
Ostlund and ODA officials started working on Philippine market access in 2014, two years after they gained access to South Korea for fresh Oregon blueberries. Oregon still is the only state allowed to ship fresh blueberries into South Korea.
“Once we got approval on Korea, once I figured out how this process worked and we kind of got our feet on the ground, in my mind, I wanted to parlay that success, and the Philippines and Vietnam seemed very logical trade partners, and that has proved to be the case,” Ostlund said.
In October of 2014, Ostlund accompanied then ODA Director Katy Coba on a trade mission to Vietnam and the Philippines that was put together primarily to promote Oregon potatoes.
“It was a very positive reception,” Ostlund said. “And with the all the health properties of blueberries in the news, with it being recognized as a super food even back then, the interest was certainly there.”
In 2019, the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council joined in the effort and the Oregon Blueberry Commission cooperated with the national organization to host an official visit from a high-ranking Philippines official, who came to Oregon last August.
Ostlund described the Philippines as a promising market. Its citizens love U.S. products, he said, and buyers have expressed considerable interest in blueberries.
“There is good solid infrastructure there,” he said. “They have good cold-storage facilities, but distribution outside of the major cities, primarily Manila and Cebu City, is limited. That is where the major population centers are, and I would expect these early shipments will be very concentrated in those larger areas, because they have the infrastructure to deal with produce items like blueberries that need to be kept fresh through the grocery retail process.
“I think it is a market that will take time to develop,” Ostlund said. “But you never know. We didn’t recognize what was coming our way in Vietnam last year and that kind of came out of the starting blocks like cannon fire. So, it will be interesting to see what we do.”
Initially, Ostlund said he was hoping the U.S. blueberry industry could move 500,000 pounds in its first year in Vietnam. Instead sales reached more than 2 million pounds.
Ostlund had planned to participate in market promotion campaigns that the U.S. blueberry industry has planned for the Philippines and Vietnam this summer beginning in July, but those plans are likely scrapped due to travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The market promotions, however, are expected to go forward, and Ostlund doesn’t believe the virus will affect sales.
“We have been moving produce into Vietnam very consistently, so I don’t see that being an issue,” he said.
Ostlund wanted to thank ODA for its role in helping the industry open the market.
“ODA throughout the whole process has been a great professional partner,” Ostlund said. “When you travel with the director of agriculture, it opens doors and gives you a level of credibility that an individual like myself working on behalf of some obscure organization like the Oregon Blueberry Commission normally wouldn’t have.
“Also, having ODA personnel travel and work with us on getting this market open on the technical side has meant many things,” he said. “They have been great partners in this whole thing, and consistent.”