Blueberry Growers Watching Out For Overplanting

Singing The Blues

Roy Malensky has always enjoyed growing blueberries. Besides the challenge of growing such a fickle crop — every variety is completely different, and he grows 13 of them — there was a time not too long ago that it was extremely profitable. Those days are coming to an abrupt end. “We’ve been telling everybody ‘Make sure you realize you won’t be getting (up to) $1.30 a pound like you did in 2006 and ‘07,” he says. “It was a time when any dummy could make money at it.”

The problem is a familiar one to growers of all crops. The high prices of the past several years attracted more plantings — U.S. acreage is up 33% in just the past three years — and acreage is shooting up around the world (see chart). Because of the impending potential glut, Malensky and other U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council leaders are trying to pass an assessment this winter that will double their rate from $12 to $24 per ton. “There are a lot of blueberries in the ground that are just about to mature,” says Malensky. “We’re trying to raise money before those crops come on.”

Malensky believes the passage of the assessment is critical to the future of the U.S. industry, because they absolutely must have more money for promotion. “It’s the only way we’ll get increased prices,” says Malensky, dismissing the arguments of some of the large growers, who say they want to do their own marketing. “Good luck marketing on your own — somebody will just undercut you on the price.”

A Conundrum

Passing the assessment won’t be easy, Malensky concedes. Besides opposition from those who want to market on their own, the sharp decrease in prices — down to 20¢ a pound, in some cases — has growers looking to cut costs. “With prices low, they don’t want to pay (a higher assessment), but we need to promote to get rid of the low prices,” sighs Malensky. “It’s a conundrum.”

In the meantime, many leading growers aren’t just sitting idly by. They’ve worked hard to get blueberries onto school lunch menus, and had some success this year when USDA agreed to purchase up to $14.7 million worth of blueberries for federal nutrition assistance programs, the largest-ever purchase of blueberries. It’s a critical piece to their marketing strategy, Malensky says. “Many U.S. citizens have never had a blueberry, but when they try them, they like them,” he says. “If they grow up eating them, they’re customers for life.”

Another key part of the strategy is increasing exports. In October, the North American Blueberry Council made a decision to expand marketing to South Korea because a major U.S. retailer, Costco, would like to work with the council to get fresh berries into South Korea. Also, just a few months ago the first U.S. blueberries arrived in India, a market second only to China in size. “We really must get into promoting them in China,” says Malensky. “We need to get them eating blueberries.”

“Backwards” Marketing

After hearing of the acute oversupply problems, growers of other crops might not be considering blueberries. But if they’re not scared off, Malensky has a few words of advice. First, a lot of growers in recent years planted varieties that could only be used for processing. But if you lose a key buyer, such as the food company you sell to decides to go with a cheaper replacement fruit, you’re in trouble. “Plant only varieties that work for both the fresh market — those that have good eating quality — and the frozen market — those that can be machine-picked,” he says. “You’ll want that flexibility.”

Also, before you plant, Malensky advises that you talk to a lot of potential buyers to determine who exactly is going to buy your fruit. “Whatever market you’re going to sell it to, make sure it works,” he says. “Think backwards, start with the buyer, and then go back to the farm.”

Pest Spread Like Wildfire

Like a lot of growers, Malensky attends a weekly coffee shop meeting early in the morning to talk farming and solve the world’s problems. It’s not only good to shoot the breeze with buddies; it’s a great way of staying aware of what’s going on in your neck of the woods.

Additional Resources

To learn more about spotted wing drosophila (SWD), click on the links below.

Video explainationby Mark Bolda with the University of California Cooperative Extension and Kevin Hoffman, the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s primary state entomologist:

Mark Bolda’s blog

Basic information on SWD from UC IPM Online:

Oregon State University has created a website devoted to disseminating the latest information on SWD, find it here.

Malensky relearned that lesson at his Friday breakfast meeting this past August. He heard that the spotted wing drosophila (SWD), which was formerly known as cherry vinegar fly, had made its way north from California into Oregon. That morning he learned growers in the south end of the Willamette Valley had found SWD in their fruit. Malensky was concerned, but not overly worried, as he farms in Hillsboro, which is located in the north end of the valley, near Portland.

So the following Friday morning the news came as quite a shock. “My supervisor called during that breakfast meeting and said ‘We’ve got soft fruit.’ (SWD) really makes the fruit go to mush,” explains Malensky. “But the worst part is, I’ve never seen anything spread so quickly — ever.”
In fact, the field of blueberries where Malensky’s crew found the SWD had already been picked three or four times. And the pest is so small and because the damage is all on the inside of the fruit, the pickers couldn’t detect it. It wasn’t until they brought the fruit back to the packinghouse that they realized there was something wrong with the load.

Malensky immediately began spraying malathion and zeta-Cypermethrin (Mustang, FMC Corp.) every five to seven days and ended up saving the end of the field. That seemed to help, though the flight may have been down by then.

A few weeks after Malensky was hit, he was still talking about how remarkable the pest is. The speed with which it infested the West Coast was just amazing. “You know, it’s all the way to BC (British Columbia) now,” he says. “That thing spreads faster than anything I’ve ever seen.”

The SWD infestation was so lightning fast that Malensky said the only good thing is that it hit late enough in the season that most growers avoided losing huge amounts of fruit. “If that hits us at the beginning of blueberry season,” he says, “a lot of growers would have lost the whole crop.”

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