Aug 28, 2020
Growers pursue expanding niche for organic blueberries
Stephen Kloosterman

For many blueberry growers, the organic market represents a field of opportunity that offers product differentiation and price premiums. The benefits of organic production are offset by the difficulties of organic growing and the danger of lowering prices with too much supply.

From 2014 to 2019, the average difference between wholesale prices for organic and conventionally-grown blueberries was $2.09 per pound, according to a recent North American Blueberry Council (NABC) report based on USDA data via Agronometrics. Prices per pound during that time varied from just over $4 to $6.

“This has been a growth segment for this business,” said Kasey Cronquist, president of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) and NABC.

Growth for growers

Although premiums paid for organic blueberries greatly fluctuate with seasonal availability – that’s still a sizeable bonus. Some regions are seeing their average premiums continue to grow. New Jersey and Georgia-grown blueberries enjoyed premiums of about 200%, according to the report. As a region, Washington/Oregon’s premiums steadily grew from 148% in 2017 to 173% in 2020.

NABC Chairman Ken Patterson, the grower behind Island Grove Ag Products in Florida, is one of many operators investing in organic production. He has two farms, each about 200 acres, and the northern farm, located southeast of Gainesville, Florida, is entirely organic, while the southern farm near Arcadia, had about 5 acres transitioned. His organic blueberries are marketed by Alpine Fresh, with much of them going to the members-only retailer COSTCO. He’s generally found the Arcadia and Kestrel varieties of southern highbush blueberries grow well in the climate and produce good yields.

“We’re pretty heavily invested in (organics), and the reason we got into it is our big competition is Mexico,” Patterson said. Increasing imports of Mexican-grown conventional berries during Florida harvests have been a concern for Florida growers for years. “We just started hedging our bets, diversifying, and I’m really glad we did because Mexico came on like gangbusters. They’re working us over pretty hard here in Florida, but their organic production is very little. That’s one reason we decided to make the shift.”

Sites, systems of growing

Organic farm development, however, requires a heavy investment, and a serious look at doing things differently.

One example is Selah, Washington-based Rainier Fruit, which recently announced it was working with a nonprofit, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, to create habitat for wild pollinators. Rainer plans to earn a “Better Bee” certification for all of its organic blueberry production.

“It’s pretty simple; if we don’t protect the bees, we don’t have fruit to sell,” Tyler Johnson, Rainier Fruit’s blueberry commodity manager, said in a press release.

Organic produce growing in Florida is a challenge because the moisture and heat allow a greater degree of disease, pest and weed pressure.

“There are certain regions that are more conducive to good organic growing – economic and more easily managed growing,” Patterson said. “There are areas in California, Oregon, eastern Oregon, eastern Washington – you know, they don’t have many insect issues, much fungus issues, and those can be very problematic.

“Weed pressure will run you out of business here in Florida,” he said. For organic growers, “your quiver doesn’t have a lot of arrows to take care of those things.”

Patterson, for one, has organically grown blueberries from bushes in nursery pots. At the northern farm about half of the organic blueberry bushes are in containers, while the other half is in the ground with cloth to prevent weeds.

Blueberry bushes in containers at Island Grove Ag Products farms in Florida. Photos: Island Grove

The industry continues to debate the policies relating to container growing, but in a June 2019 letter to certifying agents, the National Organic Program wrote that container farming had to be conducted on land where no prohibited substances had been used for the preceding three years.

“They’ve taken away the organic process of just buying a nursery pot, and putting in substrate and growing them organically,” Patterson said. Container growing is still allowed on organic ground but Patterson said without the advantage of being certified immediately whether or not the farm had organic land, most new farms are planting bushes in the ground.

Finding land for organic production comes with its own set of challenges.

“I can only speak from experience in Florida, and site selection is very important,” Patterson said. “There’s just not a lot of good blueberry soils in Florida. The soils that are good – high in organic (materials) and low in pH – are wetter areas around swamps, and of course, those are too wet, really, to grow blueberries properly, unless you can properly drain them, which is a huge undertaking financially, and a lot of times legally, because you can’t touch wetlands in Florida.” For some of his new organic farmland, he’s looked to pine forests.

Micro-climates also are often considered because Florida growers are concerned about freezes.

“For us to get into the window that we need to be in, which is in March and April, we need to be flowering in January. We’re highly susceptible to freezes then,” Patterson said.

Wish Farms in 2018 opened a new organic farm near Alturas, Florida. The 20-acre farm sits on a south-facing slope that overlooks the lakefront. In such a setup, the lake acts as a buffer zone for cold fronts coming out of the northeast; humidifying and modifying the air temperature, Patterson said.

Irrigation is a huge expense in establishing new farms, in Florida, he said – roughly $20,000 an acre.

“You have to have a very well-maintained and efficient irrigation overhead system to save blueberries from the freezes in Florida,” Patterson said. “Every field that has been successful in Florida has solid-set overhead irrigation for freeze protection. It’s just a necessity out here.”

Supply and demand

While blueberry production continues to expand, the NABC’s report warned that too much supply could decrease the price point.

Patterson said some western growers are “hurting themselves” by adding too much organic supply.

“I watch the prices pretty closely, and there’s a lot of times through the year they’re getting no premium for organic,” he said.

“Generally speaking in agriculture, oversupply is an issue everybody needs to be concerned about,” Cronquist said. “It’s still a supply-and-demand business … if supply exceeds that demand, then you’re in a situation where the price is going to look a little more like conventional. I know it will be an issue like it is for all commodities in agriculture, generally.”

Some conventionally-grown fruit commodities whose growers have approved federal marketing orders, such as cranberries and tart cherries, in some years will set inventory rules. Organic blueberries are far away from that scenario.

“The good news is, we still see a significant amount of growth for blueberries, generally,” Cronquist said. “Conventional and organic have a lot of running room left.”

He said roughly 38% of U.S. households buy blueberries, but that figure could be improved by marketing and educating new market groups.

“That’s what we’re focused on at the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, is looking at those audiences and communicating with them the messages we have about the benefits of blueberries,” he said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

Stephen Kloosterman is the managing editor of Organic Grower.

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