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California hunkering down for a good blueberry season

All the signs point to good volume and quality for California’s blueberry producers. “We’re hunkering down for a good blueberry season,” said Alexander Ott, executive director of the California Blueberry Commission. “Overall, the season has been really good.”

California is home to 80 blueberry producers and 20 handlers, and the Golden State ranks fifth nationally for its blueberry production.CropOverviewCalifornia blueberry production for 2013 is expected to outpace volume moved during 2012, when the state's producers and handlers moved 44 million pounds of blues into global pipelines. (Photo courtesy of Curry & Co.)

Last year, California moved a total of 44 million pounds of blues into domestic and export pipelines. “This year, we’re definitely looking at a larger crop than last year,” he stated. Mr. Ott attributed the volume increase to a combination of factors. He said younger acreage is coming into production, and other acreage is hitting its full stride.

Weather did pose some potential threat during the early season. “We had a couple of big wind storms that knocked down trees [around Easter],” he commented, adding that some low-lying areas experienced cooler temperatures. But overall, impact to the crop was minimal.

Some California growers began harvesting early blueberry varieties this past March. “The bulk comes off in May and June,” Mr. Ott commented. “We wrap up by July.”

California blues are marketed throughout the United States. “Eighteen to 20 percent of our blueberries are exported with the bulk going to Canada,” Mr. Ott said. “Our second largest export market is Japan.”

Interest in blueberry production continues to grow in California, and Mr. Ott said some growers are looking at increased production. Labor, he noted, is a critical factor determining whether such expansion is viable. “Blueberries are handpicked,” Mr. Ott said. “Labor is always an unknown. And a lack of labor means prices are higher. The current guest worker program isn’t addressing the needs of agriculture.” California’s minimum wage is currently $8 per hour. But Mr. Ott went on to say that is a starting point. “A lot of our folks get paid a lot more than $8,” he stated.

During the 2012 production season, Mr. Ott said some blueberry and tree fruit growers lost portions of their crops due to weather events. Even with these reductions, he said growers were jockeying with the labor pool to ensure their crops could be brought in.