Promising Future for the Berry Industry

Promising Future for the Berry Industry

“Berries are fun and people have a nice feeling about them!” This is what my friend, the famous plant breeder, Fred Bliss, said to me the other day. Even though Fred worked mainly in vegetable breeding in his career, I always pay close attention to what he says. There are a whole lot more folks that think this way about berries. With that image, how can the berry outlook appear anything but bright?

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Yet, berries are grown by farmers, and farming has its ups and downs due to common issues of weather, labor, price, competition, and a host of other potential challenges no matter what crop. I inquired recently with a number of contacts across the berry industry for some comments on the outlook for several berry crops.

Overall Comments
One of my first contacts was Mikel Hancock, the Merchandise Manager for Produce & Floral for Walmart U.S. in Bentonville, AR. “The berry category continues to be an important area driving fresh perception and quality in stores,” Mikel shared. “It’s one of the few commodities that consumers can eat at three meals per day including snacking occasions.” He continued by saying, “the most promising aspect is the continued focus on innovation and automation. Industry leaders are testing and implementing new technologies and practices learned globally and in other industries to maintain consumer demand and deliver an unbelievable quality experience.” These are very positive statements from our largest U.S. retail produce marketer.

Additionally, expansion in berry production for local markets continues. North Carolina grower Ervin Lineberger said, “consumer preference for locally grown produce has helped small growers a great deal. This, coupled with many tasty cultivars that are less suitable for shipping and using growing systems that can easily be adapted to small operations, is helping high dollar-per-acre farms flourish.”

I asked a range of contacts about challenges or limitations in berries. The overwhelming consensus is concern about labor. No matter what berry, or if in California, North Carolina, or somewhere in between, this major issue has everyone’s attention. This likely is our greatest risk for the future of the berry industry.

In my focus on fresh market berries, I am limiting comments to the four major berries: blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and red raspberries. I realize there are others, but they will have to wait for another column.

Blackberries
The expansion of blackberry marketing in the last 15 years in the U.S. has been a true bright spot in fruit crops. Although approximately 75% of our retail-market blackberries are imported from Mexico between October and June, domestic production has greatly increased in both local and shipping markets. Lineberger, who is located in Kings Mountain, NC, is a longtime leader in blackberry production in the East. He started growing blackberries in 1982 and has experienced a lot: varied prices, demand, supply, fruit quality, and consumer interest. He currently markets primarily wholesale for shipping.

“Now in 2018, the whole blackberry industry seems to be the most healthy overall than at any time since then,” he said. “The blackberry in 1982 was considered a minor specialty fruit. Now it’s a mainstream item.”

He mentioned there are many reasons for this emergence, but chief among these is the quality of the fruit produced with much better cultivars. Of course, this is music to my ears as a plant breeder who has had the opportunity to be involved in blackberry cultivar improvement.

Scott Norman with Naturipe Farms in Salinas, CA, who works in the wholesale market, says Naturipe is forecasting limited to moderate blackberry growth over the next five years due to grower profitability. Scott continues to be excited about domestic blackberries, and believes all berries are still a hot commodity for retailers.

“There are people in the industry excited about blackberries that are wanting to educate the consumers with the health benefits blackberries bring,” he said.

Pierson Geyer of Hanover, VA, who grows for the local markets, continues to see strong demand for local-market blackberries. “Consumers are also typically excited about local blackberries after seeing imported fruit during the winter season,” he said.

From a challenge side, he said the weather continues to create issues. In 2017, his farm experienced a 60% loss on blackberries due to late freezes. His concern ― along with growers of all perennial fruits ― is the continued pattern of winter warmth.

Overall, blackberry growers have a positive outlook for 2018, and the continued growth of the so-called “fourth berry” provides for a bright future.

Blueberries
We all know of the great expansion of blueberry production in the last 25 years, one of the most striking expansions of any fruit crop. I contacted Cort Brazelton with Fall Creek Nursery in Lowell, OR, for his perspective on the blueberry industry. He indicated that North American consumption continues to grow in high single digits. He says factors such as proprietary and/or private genetics are playing an increasing role in the industry. He further indicated that the price of processing berries plus freezer holdings impact fresh berry profits.

Cort shared that blueberries are largely two-thirds fresh and one-third processing on a global scale. He said blueberry industry growth remains generally supply-driven, though the “next evolutionary phases of quality and value are rising fast in many markets.”

This is to be expected as all the additional acres planted in recent years come into production.

Blueberries do have an advantage over other berries in that machine-harvested berries for the fresh market are becoming more commonplace. This advantage plus an increasing popularity should continue to expand fresh market blueberries.

Strawberries
The nation’s largest berry crop, strawberries, enjoy a large market share of the berry category. In light of this, my contacts for strawberries held commonly shared concerns. Hancock pointed out that the industry is “facing constraints on labor, housing, water, and rising land cost, all which are impacting grower profitability and future growth of growers. With these constraints, it becomes even more important that the industry focuses on shipping the highest quality fruit.”

Carolyn O’Donnell with the California Strawberry Commission emphasized that the industry is changing. “In California in particular, there are regulatory changes that are further restricting pest control tools that have less requirements in other states and countries,” she said.She pointed out that a positive aspect of the industry in California is that since 2008, more than $10 million has been invested in the Commission’s “Farming Without Fumigants” initiative. Numerous research partners have worked on alternatives to pre-plant soil fumigation to avoid or control soilborne plant diseases. Additionally, O’Donnell shared, “there is a great deal of effort going into automation of various parts of the production cycle, including various harvest aids and field monitoring sensors.”

It is exciting to see that innovation is underway to address some major industry issues.

Jeff Crotts in Lawndale, NC, grows primarily for the local market. He said the locally grown movement has “really helped us in direct marketing.” However,
he does not anticipate substantial acreage increases in his region in the coming year.

Red Raspberries
Fresh-market red raspberries are another crop that has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Once largely a processing crop in the U.S., the development of primocane-fruiting cultivars has increased production to record levels. Proprietary U.S.-developed cultivars plus some new introductions from Europe have all contributed to this expansion. However, in recent years grower profits have become narrower as production has increased and has impacted expansion of plantings, particularly for the shipping market.

“My impressions on the raspberry industry in particular are that consumers are generally more excited about them when they see them available direct from the farm than in the past,” said Geyer.

Geyer expressed particular excitement about new cultivars and their impact on his farm’s production. “As we continue to invigorate the industry across North America, year-round consumption becomes easier and consumers create positive habits in incorporating raspberries into their regular diets,” he added.
With expansion of red raspberry production in Mexico in recent years, marketing has likely benefited as have blackberries from this stable supply in the U.S. “off-season.”

Final Thoughts
Healthy, fun to eat, convenient, and available all describe the image of berries today in U.S. society. High profit potential and crop diversity have been substantial benefits to growers. This provides for an overall positive outlook for the berry industry.

As in life, there are always challenges. With berries, issues such as labor, crop management, changing industry dynamics, food safety, water, and regulations are all important. All in all, it is still a time to let the berry good times roll!