California Blueberry Growers Fit a Profitable Gap

Blueberry Production in California

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor

California blueberries are harvested from more than 5,000 acres in the state, but it took quite a bit of work in the early 1990s to make the crop viable for the area.

“We took a lot of varieties that had been developed for the early season low-chill areas of the southeast, and then we had to modify the pH of the soil and water, which was important. They were also finicky with heavy soils and would not tolerate drought,” said Mark Gaskell, a UCANR Cooperative Extension Small Farm and Specialty Crop Advisor for San Luis Obispo County who was very involved in establishing the early blueberry industry in California.

“We had to come up with a growing regime, and that took a few years, but there was enough success in the early years and the crop price would be at transitional periods between the northern and southern hemisphere,” Gaskell explained. “This is because, historically, most of the blueberries were grown in relatively few states and started being harvested in April and went to maybe October or September. And then it all shifted to the Southern hemisphere.”

At the time of a shift in the production area, there is a huge price incentive. And California growers filled that in.

“Soon, there was a lot of interest in producing for the fresh markets and as a result of having more blueberries in the market, more of a year, consumption has gone up,” Gaskell said. “At the same time, blueberries had become a super food for health.”

Other specialty small food crops are diversifying growers’ fields after the great success of introducing blueberries as a profitable crop.

“Much of the same kinds of things had been happening with other specialties, small fruit crops,” Gaskell explained. “California used to be primarily a strawberry-producing state. And many of those strawberry growers now have diversified in a wide range of other berries. And so those raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries have all increased in acreage and value.”

More information on California Blueberries can be found here.

Labor Issues Affecting Harvest

California Faces Labor Issues

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

California Ag Today recently had the chance to interview Alex Ott, Executive Director of the California Apple Commission, California Blueberry Commission, and the California Olive Committee. He said the apple harvest went well, but there are labor issues in California that will be affecting the industry in the future.

Alex Ott

There is a big concern regarding the ongoing labor issues. These issues don’t just affect apples and blueberries, but other commodities as well. The increased rules and regulations in California are one component to the decrease in labor.

“You have all of the new rules, whether it be mandatory increase in wages, that obviously inflate a lot of the other wages that are currently already in existence,” Ott said.

Another cause is that they have done away with the ag exemption overtime. With all of the stress following that change, the stress is put on the labor and in this type of situation, the labor decreases.

“I think it is a combination of a lot more increased enforcement of what is going on down at the border, and as a result, you see a lot of folks that just are not available to work,” Ott explained. “Many workers will decide to just not go to work. Not only is the stress on the labor, but the growers as well. If the grower does not increase what he is bringing in, it makes it very difficult to pay the increased costs.”

California Represented at Fresh Summit In New Orleans

PMA Fresh Summit Happening Now, Oct. 19-21

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

The Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit brings together produce and floral industry leaders, retail buyers, food safety experts and importers and exporters from around the globe. A thousand exhibitors representing over 60 countries are at the Fresh Summit in New Orleans this week.

Alex Ott

“It’s a great opportunity to continue to meet with consumers and buyers and get the message out about the availability of California produce,” said Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission, California Blueberry Commission and the California Olive Committee told us about the Summit.

The Buy California Program will be a big part of the Fresh Summit this year, and Ott noted that it has been very positive for California apples and blueberries and olives.

“Getting the message out that California isn’t just Hollywood, but a big agricultural state as well, and we are there representing apples, blueberries and olives.

Regarding the 2017 blueberry crop, Ott noted that harvest went well and prices were good, however the price for processed blueberries were down this year.

“We were running about 10 days behind this year, but overall it was a very comparable year to last year as well. Not all the final numbers are in yet, but the fresh market was very, very good. Processed was not good,” Ott said.

“There was a lot of fruit out there and the processed prices were down significantly. And that had a huge impact on how many blueberries actually went to processing,” he said.

“The other unfortunate incident at the beginning of the year, is a lot of our friends in Georgia and some of the other southeast States, experienced a freeze, which impacted the crop, but on the other hand, was … good movement for California fresh blueberries,” Ott said.

 

Blueberry Farmers Face Pivotal Juncture

Blueberry Farmers Grapple with Harvest Complexities

By Laurie Greene, Editor

It is peak season for blueberries in California, which provides nine percent of America’s blueberries according to the California Agricultural Statistics Review 2013-2014. And though this year’s harvest is a healthy, robust crop due to “fantastic” growing conditionsgreat weather, increased precipitation and a great bloomother factors, according to Alexander Ott, executive director of the California Blueberry Commission, have complicated the process. Farmers have reached a pivotal juncture to adapt with all the variables.

Despite the exceptional quality of this year’s harvest—an estimated 70M-pound blueberry supply in California—and good movement in the produce marketplace, Ott explained blueberry farmers are facing a scarce, expensive labor force and a drop in market price. “Harvesting and labor is different for every blueberry grower because they may grow different blueberry varieties, prepare them for market as fresh or processed, have differ farm labor contracts or hire directly. And this year, harvest arrived two weeks early.”CA Blueberry Commission

“If we don’t have the labor, we don’t have a crop,” acknowledged Ott. “This is not unskilled labor, either; it is difficult to educate farmworkers, do research and other necessary things farmers must do to conduct a sustainable operation. Folks must know how to prune; how to identify ripe berries among fruit that ripens unevenly, how to pick without bruising the berries, and how to maintain stringent food safety measures.

“These farmworkers are hard working,” said Ott, “and generally make good money,” which Ott defined as $22 per hour. The lowest wage he is aware is $13/hour. And with the recent increase in California’s minimum wage, Ott reported that labor costs account for 52-54% costs of blueberry production.

Furthermore, Klein Management blueberry workers who struck for three days last week overwhelmingly voted—by 82 percentto be represented by the United Farm Workers (UFW) during a union representation election last Saturday, May 21, overseen by the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Throw in the lack of national comprehensive guest worker reform to allow skilled farmworkers to come in, work, and then go home; our economy as a whole; labor lost from drought and fallowed fields; mandated food safety requirements (particularly compared to other countries); new surface water and groundwater regulations; invasive pests and plant diseases; international commodity and trade factors; shipping and transportation complexities; and the fact that “the wheels of government move at slow pace” to adapt, as Ott views it, and the small grower disappears.

Ott sees two options for California blueberry farmers: Hire the same block of labor to conduct the six or seven picks per field of fruit or become innovative, particularly in the use of technology. With the introduction of the blueberry harvester several years ago, increased industrialization has afforded farmers the ability to dismiss worries about wage hikes and labor shortages, protection against heat stress, break periods, and overtime.

The question is, according to Ott, “How fast will the industry move toward technology?” Ott is following the issue with great interest, “As farmers go mechanical, there are more questions than answers.”