Good Fruit Grower

December 2012

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EXPLOSION T Blueberry he blueberry industry has had a growth curve that growers would love to see for any fruit. From a relatively minor industry produc- ing about 100 million pounds of fruit annu- Little Blue Dynamos graduate from niche to world superfruit. ally a generation ago, production reached 887 million pounds in 2010, according to John Shelford, a long-time blueberry industry observer, analyst, and marketing expert. And there are enough plants in the ground to elevate that to 1.5 billion pounds in 2016. "I wouldn't believe by Richard Lehnert it if I hadn't lived it," Shelford said. He started his work for MBG Marketing, based in Grand Junc- tion, Michigan, in 1976 and is now the chief executive offi- cer of frozen sales for Naturipe Farms. In David Brazel- ton's view, "Blueberries were the right crop at the right time with the right information." Brazelton, owner of Fall Creek Nursery in Lowell, Oregon, was an early believer in the potential to grow blueberries well outside traditional production areas. He built his business over the last 30 years by providing plants to growers who shared the belief that the blueberry business would grow if they could plant the right varieties. Tremendous growth in pro- duction was accompanied by a steadily increasing price and steadily increasing consump- tion, a triple-whammy combi- nation that doesn't happen very often. Not only are more people eating blueberries, but each person eats more each year. From 2005 to 2008, acreage in the United States slowed to 3 percent in the Northeast and 5 percent in Michigan, but even in these traditional areas, acreage is still rising (see table). In addition, countries in South America—Chile, Argentina, Uruguay—have entered the fray, with an acreage growth rate of 73 percent over those three years. Overall, in the Western Hemisphere, acreage grew from 89,114 in 2005 to 135,310 in 2008, for an annualized growth rate of 17 percent. Moreover, Shelford said, both consumption and production is increasing in nontraditional areas— Poland, Germany, Serbia, Spain, Ukraine, China. What is even more exceptional is price. This year, the price per pound will come close to $1.50, a new record high. Healthful fruit Scientific information on the health-promoting effects of blueberries began to emerge in the late 1990s just as Baby Boomers, the let's-never-say-die generation, were turning 50 and starting to witness evidence of their own mortality. Studies showed that blueberries, of all the fruits and berries, are one of the highest in antioxidants. Research indicated that antioxidants could not only slow the effects of aging, but actually reverse them. As more research was published, the media "I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't lived it." —John Shelford grew from 71,000 to more than 95,000, for an annual growth rate of 12 percent, according to Shelford's figures. In the West—Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and California—the growth was even more spectacular, rising from 22,600 acres in 2005 to 35,000 in 2008. That's 52 percent growth in three years. The West is now the leading producing region, surpassing the South, which itself has been growing rapidly. The traditional production areas in the Northeast (New Jersey mainly) and the Midwest (Michigan mainly) have been dwarfed by produc- tion in new areas. The annual growth rate has 54 DECEMBER 2012 GOOD FRUIT GROWER reported that eating blueberries could potentially slow or reverse memory loss and cognitive decline, help restore balance and put some spring back in one's gait, improve problem-solving abil- ity, improve failing eyesight, and ward off macular degener- ation. Antioxidants reputedly prevent cancer, stroke, heart disease, and Alzheimers. USDA research is still gener- ating new health findings. In the fall of 2010, a USDA-funded study added atherosclerosis—hard- ening of the arteries—to the list of bad stuff that blueberries fight. This health information provided a kick start for what had been already a growing industry. The Fountain of Youth had been discovered. More expansion Huge increases in production make growers worry, and growers in Michigan are routinely advised that the industry has matured and no more plantings should be made. Brazelton agrees, it can be scary. But, he says, "You can't use old rules to think about new opportu- nities." The next five to ten years will be challenging, he says, "but I can't think of another crop I'd rather be in." While production is rising, it's still a fraction of what strawberries are. Blueberries are virtually unknown to most people in the world. "Demand in China is exploding," he said. Demand is growing in India, Russia, and in the Middle East. He thinks we're witnessing "a paradigm shift in consumption of all things blueberry." The fruit can be eaten fresh, frozen, or dried, and there is no large price penalty for processed fruit. It

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