Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Salute to Those Who Sell

The US Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) represents more than 2,500 blueberry growers in the USA. We also represent the imports as well.  Around 60 percent of all blueberries produced go to the fresh channel and the remainder to "processed" which includes frozen and other forms.  Outside of in-season U-pick blueberries -- most blueberries make it to market thanks to the unsung heros of our industry.  Yes, the sales guys!   Fresh blueberries are shipped by growers, grower packers and regional and national shippers.  Sales reps spend countless hours on the phone, talking to growers, customers.  On the fresh side, produce professionals are up before dawn selling fresh blueberries to terminals, grocery chains and even export markets.  Many of the fresh produce companies have decades of experience with blueberries,some going back almost 100 years!  On the processed side, fresh blueberries are harvested in mid-season and delivered to packing plants, where the blueberries are frozen in a variety of methods including individually quick frozen, case frozen and straight pack.  Some packers also prepare puree, juice and other "Co-Products."  The frozen berries  are in demand for use in the polybag markets for store sales.  Frozen blueberries are also shipped to food processors such as pie fillings, muffin manufacturers and  a whole range of uses. Frozen blueberry sales staffs, are knowledgeable of product specifications and the lingo of the food industry.  Sellers are connected with retail chains and food processors around the country.   They sell direct and also rely upon food brokers in regions of the country who represent their interest and keep connected with the users.  Blueberry Sellers and buyers are a small club,and each year they converge on important industry events such as the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh Produce Association for fresh and the American Frozen Fruit Institute (AFFI).  Buyer meet sellers.  Information is exchanged, and deals are made.  Thank you to all of our blueberry sellers and buyers for making it all happen!

Friday, February 14, 2014

!ncredible -- fresh blueberries a hit in India!

More than 150 years ago, a exporters in the US Northeast successfully completed their first sea shipments of lake ice to Calcutta in India. The ship was specially insulated with straw to keep the ice from melting.  From a cargo of 100 tons, around 15 tons survived.  The wonder-ice was cherished in the expat enclave of this bustling English-colonial city.   This year marks the second year that fresh blueberries from the USA have been shipped to far away India.  The blueberries are picked in the morning and taken to the airport --while maintaining a "cold chain."   Product is packed into air containers with cold gel packs and raced off over the poles to routes in Southeast Asia or Europe on the way to India.  Upon arrival, the fresh blueberries are loaded from planes to customs facilities at the Indian airports.  Since this is a new item, the Indian customs pay a lot of attention to the blueberries.  After clearance,the fresh blueberries are placed in refrigerated trucks with special care to keep the blueberries away from the high heat and humidity of India.   Within hours of landing, the fresh blueberries are delivered to hyperstores in the big cities such as Mumbai and Delhi and the other booming cities of the south including Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.  These cities now have huge tech centers and call centers in the suburbs that have generated dozens of mega-Malls with high-class western style supermarkets such as Hyperity, Big Bazaar and Food World.  Hundreds of thousands of Indians either work for western firms or have experience abroad in the USA and Europe.  When they return they often yearn for blueberries!   As unlikely as it may seem -- fresh blueberries have become a prestige item. The market is small but steadily growing.  Day to day, articles are published in the Times of India on the health benefits of blueberries.   Look for India to become one of the leading markets for fresh blueberries in the world!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

California's "Mission Impossible" Guy!

last June, Manuel Jiminez a long-time farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension Service  in Tulare, Central California retired.  We are always reading about the great ones i this business who retire or pass.  But this one hit home to me, as I am a Californian.  I met Manuel decades ago at the Parlier Research station where i wandered into his experiment area.  It was a wonderland of all sorts of fruits and nuts that were supposed to be commercially impossible in our Mediterranean-climate state.  He had bananas, mangos and yes blueberries.  Blueberries have been around for a long time in California, in far reaches of the Golden State  I had seen them in Sonoma, up in the foothills and always heard that "someone" was growing them "somewhere."  In the spirit of the great blueberry researchers before him, Manuel was testing old varieties, soil types, and many other variables.  A few years later, I attended one of his field days.  A carload of strawberry growers from up the road showed up and started picking his test marked test plots.  There were a lot of comments from the growers in the area -- "looks good...but..."
These early experiments and Manuel's dedication brought together the critical mass that has sped the rapid growth of the California blueberry industry.  In 2013, the state produced more than 50 million lbs!  I have not seen Manuel for some time and am sure I will run into him on a sortie to the Central Valley.  I am sure he is up to something interesting--and impossible!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What's With Blueberry Powder?

In a recent visit to Hong Kong, I saw an entire aisle of a pharmacy stocked with "blueberry powders."  All Chinese made, these products had images of blueberries, eyes, beautiful ladies and svelte modern executive gentlemen.  What is this stuff?
First of all, these powders are actually "bilberry powders."  They are made from the species of vaccinium called myrtillus.  This is the European wild mountain blueberry that grows naturally in the forests of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.  Most bilberry comes from countries like Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Ukraine.  Mountain villagers spend summer nights collecting these bilberries on the high slopes and dense forests.  They are brought to collection sites for rendezvous in the morning and taken to freezers, normally in the lowlands at plants which also process other mountain produces such as wild mushrooms and wild mountain herbs.  At this stage the bilberries are in field condition and include leaves and stems -- but since this is OK as the product is not for immediate consumption.  European packing companies, mainly from Scandinavia send buyers to the regions in during the harvest and scoop up the "case frozen" bilberries normally at a market price that is standard all over the region.  The price is set by the buyers, and seems decently high compared to world blueberry prices for highbush and lowbush blueberries.  Now the journey takes the bilberries to Scandinavia where a flourishing bilberry business has exited for decades if not longer.  The Baklan blueberries are normally reprocessed, cleaned and sorted and repacked and utilized in local products.  Although some do remain in Europe -- almost all are shipped to China for anthocyanin (pigment) extraction. The bilberry is the gold standard of anthocyanin, as the bilberry has blue color inside and can be processed into 35 percent of more anthocyanin.  Almost all extraction factories are located in China and the customer base is mainly in China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.  The bilberry extractions are made into high-value powders that end up in capsules that I saw in Hong Kong.  
Now you probably have a few questions:
>Question: Why can't we produce bilberries in the USA.  They cannot be cultivated and only grow in the wild.  
>Question: Why can't North American blueberries go to extraction.  Answer: well they can, but the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical companies normally want the higher yielding bilberries.  There are some concentrated extracts of highbush blueberries (vaccinium corymbosum) that are now marketed.  One company is called Powder Pure in Washington and can be located on our supplier list.  We have dozens of pure blueberry powder producers in North America and this is a very interesting and developing business for US producers.  After all it takes 12 lbs or kg of blueberry to make one kg of blueberry powder!  That uses a lot of blueberry.
Question: Are these powders beneficial.  I read a study a few years ago that analyzed Asian "blueberry powders."  The conclusion was that there was a wide variety of potency in the powder.  I note that today there are various certifications on the packages that proclaim the quality characteristics.
Is blueberry powder a potential marketable product in North America.  Visit the Natural Products Expo and that question will be answered!  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Worldly Blueberry Traditions

One of my jobs is to manage and maintain the Blueberry Health Research Database.  I receive hundreds of citations and abstracts on new blueberry research which is compiled by Dr. Ron Prior Ph.D.  in Arkansas. (Ron has been a pioneer in the blueberry antioxidant area and a great friend of the blueberry indusry). 
I am noticing more and more blueberry research conducted outside of North America where our blueberries originated.  Historically, the Eastern Europeans lunched the first wave of blueberry research back in the 1980s and before.  A good friend of mine, (George L.) was a fellow at the Russian (Soviet) Academy of Science and specialized in research on natural substances such as berries, garlic, and forest herbs.  Russian research focused on disease prevention, eyesight, liver and anti-radiation diets.  George L. and many of his colleagues from Russia, Serbia, Bosnia immigrated to Israel and the West in the 90s.  They became a catalyst in a wave of blueberry-health-related research that we see today. Some work in the nutraceutical business as we call it now.  Check out the USHBC blueberry health database and marvel at some of the pioneering work being conducted all over the world.
<Caption: "Kalifornia"Nutraceutical beverage combines kale juice, and  blueberries.  Although this is a UA product, it is typical of what you will fine in the typical Apoteke in Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia and Serbia.>