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Q&A: American Blueberry Growers Alliance

Like many sectors of the fruit and vegetable industry, blueberries have seen a considerable increase in imports in recent years.

As a result, American growers have seen increased pressure that is already familiar to those in many other commodities—particularly price pressure from nations with lower costs for inputs such as labor.

In December 2020, U.S. growers responded to this situation by forming the American Blueberry Growers Alliance. The Produce Reporter interviewed Jerome Crosby, Georgia blueberry farmer and chairman of the Alliance’s executive committee.

How many members do you have at present, and where are they located geographically?

The Alliance’s membership currently comprises the Georgia Blueberry Commission, Florida Blueberry Growers Association, Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee, and the California Blueberry Commission. Farmers located in other states may join as the Alliance ramps up its activities on behalf of American blueberry producers.

When was your organization formed?

The Alliance was formally established in December 2020.

What was the main reason for starting your organization?

The Alliance was created to offer domestic blueberry farmers with a unified voice to advocate on their behalf and promote the long-term viability of the domestic industry. The United States is the world’s largest producer of blueberries, and the Alliance will work to make sure this industry remains healthy and robust.

Jerome Crosby

Where do you think the main import challenges to American blueberries come from—particularly, which countries?

U.S. imports of blueberries have surged in recent years as foreign growers have deliberately targeted the U.S. growing and harvest periods. Over the past several years, blueberry imports increased dramatically from Chile, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, and Canada, rising nearly 62 percent—from 423 million pounds in 2015 to 684 million pounds in 2019. Between 2015 to 2019, blueberry imports from Peru rose by 816 percent, and from Mexico by 116 percent.

What is the level of imports of blueberries to the U.S. as a percentage of the total market?

According to U.S. import data, domestic consumption of blueberries totaled approximately 1.2 billion pounds ($2.2 billion) in 2019. U.S. producers shipped 591.9 million pounds ($755.4 million) in 2019 and accounted for 48.4 percent of U.S. consumption by quantity and 34.5 percent by value. Imports from Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina collectively accounted for 99.7 percent of all U.S. imports of blueberries by quantity in 2019. U.S. imports of blueberries, after deducting re-exports, totaled 629.9 million pounds ($1.4 billion) in 2019, and accounted for 51.6 percent of U.S. consumption by quantity and 65.5 percent by value.

Could you please give some idea of the trends in imports (that is, how much blueberry imports have grown by percentage over recent years)?

According to U.S. import data, imports from Peru have risen from $57.1 million in 2015 to $523.8 million in 2019, an increase of 816 percent. Imports from Mexico have risen from $140 million in 2015 to $302.5 million in 2019, an increase of 116 percent. Imports from Canada have risen from $256.9 million in 2015 to $280.5 million in 2019, an increase of 9.2 percent. Imports from Chile have increased from $383.1 million in 2015 to $399.1 million in 2019, an increase of 4.2 percent. Global imports have risen from $942.5 million in 2015 to $1.56 billion in 2019, an increase of 65.7 percent.

In what areas do foreign blueberry growers have competitive advantages over domestic growers (e.g., water, labor costs)?

U.S. blueberries are ethically sourced. Domestic farmers adhere to higher food safety, labor, and environmental standards than exist in many of the foreign markets where imports are sourced. Many U.S. blueberry farms pay farmworkers more in an hour than they can make in a day in countries such as Peru and Mexico. This create a price disparity that makes it difficult for American growers to compete.

How do imports compare to domestic blueberries in terms of quality?

We believe the taste and freshness of American blueberries is the highest in the world. Imported product cannot compete with the food safety standards of domestic blueberries.

Are there are any other issues you’d like to comment on?

American blueberry growers across the country are mostly small, family-run farms that are being devastated by an influx in blueberry imports. Current prices for blueberries are lower than they have been in years. Grower profits have declined or vanished as prices have plummeted and blueberries have been left on bushes because it is uneconomic to harvest.

Blueberries provide millions of dollars of economic benefits to rural communities, from direct full-time and seasonal jobs to indirect benefits such as the purchasing of farm inputs, packaging, processing, and distribution services. If American blueberry growers are forced out of business, entire communities will suffer.

Richard Smoley, an editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 11 books.