The blueberry market in Europe is one of the fastest growing in the fruit and vegetable segment. The production and consumption of these berries is continuously on the rise. While 2021 was not a very positive year, experts prove that the industry still has room for newly-established plantations, and the fruit grown on them will still be marketable. However, following the needs of consumers and retail chains is the key for blueberry farms.
Weather vs harvest length
The beginning of last year’s growing season was a difficult time for growers due to several factors. Usually, the blueberry fruiting season in Poland lasts from 1 July to the end of September, subject to shifts of merely a few days. In 2021, the spring was very cold, which played a role in a delayed flowering and an average time lag of two weeks in our country’s harvest. The low temperatures during flowering affected the flights of many species of pollinators around plantations.
Additionally, the central and south-eastern regions of Poland experienced relatively heavy rainfall, which resulted in damage and poorer fruit quality. The blueberries absorbed too much water and split.
Things differed in the Pomerania region, where the season usually starts two weeks later. The additional time lag due to the cold spring resulted in 6 weeks shorter harvest period, while it takes up to 13 weeks in normal conditions.
The operations of many farms are badly impacted by the shortage of workers, ever-increasing cost of upkeep, and trouble due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Blueberry Producers looking to reduce the number of employees more and more often reach for new solutions through automating their production in order to speed up work at every stage of preparing the fruit for sale. Growers would usually start to buy fruit packing machines in autumn and winter. In fact, last year many farmers decided to make the purchase or inquired about the products also during the harvest. Blueberry sorting, weighing and packing systems have been the most popular equipment. Interest in weighing machines and systems is growing every year. Last season has clearly shown that buying fruit packing machinery is a necessity, given the rising cost of labour or the lack of workers. While increasing labour efficiency remains a priority for Polish blueberry farms, the timely harvesting of the fruit is also vital.
Retail chains have introduced non-standard container sizes and types to attract customers. More and more often blueberries are sold in 300 g, 700 g or 1000 g packages. Environmental protection and waste reduction play an important role in these changing trends. Consumer awareness and EU legislation restricting the use of plastic in the food industry are forcing retail chains and retailers to look for new fruit packaging solutions. It becomes more and more commonplace that the retailers have their own packaging strategies in place in an effort to prepare for the coming changes. What they offer can include blueberries packed in paper or cardboard ecological containers, as well as in plastic containers that are made from recycled materials.
This raises the question of whether growers are able to adapt to prevailing trends and customer expectations, when they consider their businesses in the long term? Those who own equipment for only one type of container may face considerable problems when customer requirements change or when they want to find new customers. This is why growers are more and more often interested in purchasing made-to-order packaging lines, which will enable them to pack various formats of packages.
Not only does investment in emerging technologies prepare growers for market changes, but it also brings about production efficiency growth. Plant for sorting blueberries according to their firmness is only one of the examples. According to some growers, they would need to employ about 50 workers in packhouses to prepare for sale, roughly speaking, 300 kg blueberries in about 5 hours. Once an automatic sorter is in service, packing efficiency increases several times and the number of workers needed to prepare this fruit weight drops to about 14. Recommendations for Polish 20-50 ha plantations include automatic sorters which – depending on the quality of fruit – allow sorting 1.5-2.5 t of blueberries per hour.
The pandemic and the associated restrictions have made consumers reach more often for airtight sealed fruit. Containers that offer no possibility to open accidentally are more hygienic and environmentally friendly. They have no plastic lids, but they use a top-seal closure technology instead. Applications of this method include packing blueberries in recycled plastic containers as well as cardboard or paper pulp containers.
In addition to choosing the right type of packaging, growers must ensure that it is correctly labelled according to the requirements of the specific the fruit consumer. Labelling equipment can be facilitated for both manual and automatic packaging lines, as it can enhance packaging efficiency and the visual aspect of the final product. Time needed for operating it is greatly reduced with easy-to-use software, quick film replacement and the adjustment variable data, such as date of expiry, exact packaging time, as well as bar codes on the packaging film and labels.
Blueberry availability on the market is virtually constant throughout the year. June makes one exception due to the end of Spanish season and no Polish blueberries on sale yet. Having recognised this opportunity, some growers have taken to growing blueberries in polytunnels to accelerate the harvest by about 2-3 weeks.
Businesses that produce, purchase or pack fruit are constantly looking for new markets. They have turned their attention towards Arab and Asian countries recently. Customers in these regions are demanding in terms of goods quality. Forward-thinking growers invest by planting new varieties whose fruit is of the right appearance, high quality, and has great taste qualities combined with durability to meet the requirements of the target market.
By entering new Asian markets thanks to marketing top quality goods there is a good opportunity for growers to obtain higher margins than in European or domestic markets. Blueberries are shipped to those regions by air or sea in air-conditioned containers.
In Poland, we observe a continuous increase in the number of highbush blueberry plantings. New plantations range from 1 to 5 hectares, although 20 ha sizes for one-time planting are also the case.
In the past, the ‘Bluecrop’ variety dominated the blueberry market, causing prices to drop dramatically today during its fruiting period. This makes it necessary to invest in varieties whose fruit mature outside of the so-called ‘bluecrop spike’. It is also important to grow new varieties with better fruit quality parameters than Bluecrop, i.e. larger and tastier and with a good shelf life throughout the marketing process.
With the current collapse of the apple market, a tendency can be noticed among its participants to change their crop profile. It is the production of berries, including highbush blueberries, that is the main direction where they look for alternative solutions. With the growing demand for blueberries, the growers that will invest in the right varieties are believed to assure the profitability of their crops confidently in the next few years. Currently, an average statistical Polish consumer eats 200 grams of blueberries a year, while an American eats 1.5 kg. Consumers stopped treating these berries as a side dish or dessert, but as a major fruit food since the time they became more commercially available. Dietary changes are also noticeable: salty and sugary snacks are being replaced with healthy substitutes, such as fresh fruit.
Among European countries, the highest increase in blueberry production has been recorded in Spain, followed closely by Poland. Developing countries that aspire to have many plantings are also popping up, including Ukraine, Serbia and Romania. Being new markets, their situation is a little different because they are starting production from scratch. However, they own plenty of capital to invest, as growers are able to establish large plantings right away, up to 50 ha at a time. This is why Polish plantations must bring upgrades and adapt to market requirements if they are to stay competitive.
The global blueberry market is undergoing increasingly dynamic changes. In recent years, many new countries have emerged with a steady increase in blueberry acreage and harvests for the consumer market. A classic example is Peru, where just 10 years ago the species was basically not grown, but now the country has become a significant producer (161,000 tons in 2020) and exporter (125,100 tons in 2019) of blueberries. Blueberry imports to the countries of Western and Central Europe account for almost 1/3 of world imports, while Poland’s share is only about 6%. This means that this country, where blueberry exports accounted for nearly 45% of the blueberry crop in 2019, is in an increasingly difficult and competitive market. Unfortunately, the increase in blueberry supply on the global market is beginning to have a stronger impact on sales prices here as well. A chart shows this quite well – blueberry prices in 2021 were actually lower than the 2017-2020 average prices for the entire season. In addition, there is the so-called blueberry hole all the time. It lasts about one month and starts around the second half of July. The different varietal structure of our plantations means that unless there are rapid changes in this respect, the problem of falling prices in this period will tend to get worse. On the other hand, varieties that ripen earlier and later are still “catching on” to higher prices and perhaps they offer the opportunity for better earnings.
The issue of appropriate selling prices translates directly into the profitability of production. This is, of course, influenced by the level of yield, the quality of dessert fruit and the amount of costs incurred. Despite the fact that in Poland the traditional model of blueberry cultivation (in the ground) is dominant on most blueberry farms, current costs are quite high. With a yield of about 8 t/ha unit costs can be above PLN 10/kg. With prices as they were in 2021 – especially for plantations based largely on mid-season varieties – there may be problems with profitability, since one of the main factors affecting production costs is harvesting inputs, which, depending on various factors, can range from PLN 3-4, even to PLN 5-6/kg.
For this reason, more and more growers are turning to the possibility of using a harvester to mechanically harvest dessert fruit. Additional factors that motivate the search for alternative harvesting methods also include shortages of seasonal workers, the effects of pandemics, the opening of borders, or the steady labour migration of Poles to the West. Calculations show that the cost of harvesting blueberries with a combine harvester can be reduced to about PLN 2-3/kg, depending on the size of the crop. The main question, however, will be whether the quality of dessert fruit harvested in this way will be accepted on the European market, which receives most of Polish fruit exports. Some cite the example of U.S. growers who harvest most blueberries for the dessert market mechanically. However, one should be aware that the specifics of that market and consumers are slightly different than in Europe.
Recognizing the variety of changes and trends in the global and domestic blueberry market, mainly in the dessert fruit segment, it should be concluded that the cultivation of this species can still be an attractive choice for new growers. However, it is important to recognize that the growth rate in the blueberry market may be somewhat weaker in the coming years than in the last two decades. Many experts stress that the European market is slowly becoming saturated with blueberries, with many new suppliers emerging, especially from third countries such as Peru, Argentina and Ukraine. This means that when planning new plantings, growers will have to rely on the most innovative growing methods, achieve high yields and ensure the highest quality fruit throughout the chain – from production to sale.
Dariusz Paszko, PhD
University of Life Sciences in Lublin
The article was published in the journal “Jagodnik” no 1/2022