Record 2016 blueberry crops spark pricing concerns

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Record 2016 blueberry crops spark pricing concerns

"Blueberry glut" could be the name of a down-home Maritime dessert — but the lower prices anticipated after record-breaking harvest last year is giving producers in New Brunswick the blues.

After 2016's bumper crop, "We've run out of freezers to put the product in," said John Schenkels, chair of NB Blueberries. "Developing a market takes time, and the amount of time it takes to develop a market hasn't kept pace with production."

The wild blueberry industry has grown by leaps over the last decade — from some 20 to 30 million pounds of blueberries per year a decade ago, to 80 million pounds of wild blueberries produced in New Brunswick last year.

"We're concerned that they're not all going to be sold before we start harvesting in August," Schenkels said.

"We're a little concerned about the effect those inventories are going to have on our prices going forward."

Schenkels said the massive yields last year are attributable in part to better technology.

"We're getting better at growing blueberries," said Schenkels. "The honeybee populations that we've put on our fields has dramatically increased the crop, additional land is being used for production, and that has led to a large increase in yield over the past 5 to 10 years."

Pricing concerns

But if producers want to manage the pricing, this year will have to be strategic.

With the price forecast where it is, "each producer is going to have to look at their field and what their yields will be before they tackle it," Schenkels said.

"Our discussion now is, do we pick all the berries that are produced? At the price it's at, it's going to cost money just to go into the fields," he said.

Some ideas for reducing this year's crop include taking some acreage out of production, reducing the number of bees they put on the field, and simply not harvesting some fields.

Because blueberries are a perennial crop, it's not generally possible to take acreage out of production and replace the blueberries with something else, Schenkels said.

"If you take it out of production and put something else there you never get that acreage back," he said.

New markets needed

The neat thing about wild New Brunswick blueberries, Schenkel said, is their remarkable international profile for something grown in a comparatively tiny corner of the globe.

New Brunswick blueberries "go all over the world," he said, and are popular in the U.S., Japan, Germany and Europe.

"We'd love to open up the Chinese market," he said. "It's a worldwide product that competes on a global scale."

Developing new markets could be key to the pricing problem.

"We want to make sure everyone understands how good our product is," Schenkels said, "and that this product we're producing locally in a small part of the world benefits a lot of people worldwide."