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California Blueberry Commission launches amid record crop expectations

by Brian Gaylord | April 08, 2010
After several years of California blueberry producers and handlers moving toward creating a blueberry commission, the California Blueberry Commission has become a reality.

A referendum vote was passed by blueberry producers and handlers in February. Nominations were put out in February and board elections were held in March.

The commission held its first official meeting March 25.

Buck Klein, part owner of Gourmet Blueberry-CA LLC and newly elected chairman of the California Blueberry Commission, told The Produce News March 30 that the commission's role will be in areas such as research and registration of new products.

"Our funds are not for marketing and promotion," Mr. Klein said. "We want to keep assessments as low as possible. Promotion is costly."

Mr. Klein conceded that the possible use of funds for marketing and promotion was viewed unfavorably by some blueberry producers and handlers. Those who were suspicious of fund usage needed assurance before voting in favor of creating a commission.

The commission will be funded by assessments paid by producers and handlers at a rate of six-tenths of a cent per pound, which amounts to $12 per ton. Producers and handlers will split the assessment evenly, with each paying $6 of the $12-per-ton assessment.

After this first year, the commission will re-evaluate the $12-per-ton assessment to determine if the rate is too high or too low, Mr. Klein said. "We don't even have a budget yet to know if the assessment rate is good," he said.

Blueberry growers with "smaller than five acres of blueberries" will be exempt from assessments, Mr. Klein said.

The commission does not receive funding from the state or federal government. However, launching the commission involved borrowing money from the California Blueberry Association, which the commission owes back, Mr. Klein said.

In recent years, the idea was that the commission -- with mandatory assessments -- would replace the California Blueberry Association entirely. However, the association -- which has voluntary membership -- will continue to exist for the time being. The commission is non-political by mandate, whereas the California Blueberry Association is engaged in the political realm on behalf of California blueberry producers and handlers.

Mr. Klein called the commission a "step up" from the association, characterizing it as an entity where members "can have a voice" and a "place to get information."

Tom Avinelis, chief executive officer of Homegrown Organic Farms and a board member of the California Blueberry Commission, told The Produce News March 26 that the commission should be a vehicle for gaining market access and enacting research and development and data collection on blueberry volumes and production. Research and development includes research on cultural diseases, new varietals and new product registration.

Mr. Avinelis' personal preferences -- which he said are "areas we can all get on board with" -- are for the commission to focus on acreage and production data, new pest issues in the industry, food-safety programs and the opening of new export markets.

Mr. Avinelis said that the commission could learn from the Oregon Blueberry Commission about "how to make an industry a success."

Mr. Klein said that Mr. Avinelis is "on target" with his list of priorities. The commission has been in contact with the Oregon Blueberry Commission and "hopes to have a good line of communication" with that body, he said.

Before this season's California blueberry harvest starts in earnest, the California Blueberry Commission hopes to have in place a mechanism for reporting sales data and inventories.

"Within 24 hours of a sale, marketers can see what the average sales price was yesterday," Mr. Klein said. This will be a boon to the industry and take away a lot of guesswork on pricing, he added.

Third-party managers would be separate from the data collection effort but would oversee it. The commission is "looking at a list of managers," he said. At some point officials with the blueberry commissions in California, Oregon and Washington state will meet to discuss possible standardization of food- safety efforts, Mr. Klein said.

One fruit pest new to North America -- the Spotted Wing Drosophila -- is concerning blueberry growers in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. University researchers are working on the problem, Mr. Klein said.

At present, it appears that the California Blueberry Commission need not be overly concerned that it will not be focusing on marketing and promotion. In large part that is because the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council serves that purpose. There is a synergy in what the California Blueberry Commission will attempt to accomplish and how the USHBC functions, Mr. Avinelis said.

The Highbush Blueberry Council consists of growers and packers in North America and South America who market their blueberries in the United States. Members of the USHBC work together to promote the growth and well being of the entire industry.

USHBC Executive Director Mark Villata told The Produce News that other state blueberry commissions work with the USHBC and said that it is "excellent" that California has formed a state blueberry commission.

California likely is looking at a record year for blueberry production. Joe Barsi, vice president of business development for California Giant Berry Farms and a board member of the California Blueberry Commission, told The Produce News March 29 that the expectation is that California growers will produce more than 30 million pounds of blueberries in 2010, far exceeding the state's 2009 production of 23 million to 24 million pounds.

As a state, California will surpass Oregon in fresh blueberry production in 2010. Oregon's 2010 production will be greater than California's when processed blueberries are factored in, Mr. Barsi said.

The Central Valley is the high-volume area for California blueberries. The largest volume of blueberries grown in California is in the Delano-Bakersfield area; the Stockton area is second in production.

(For more on California blueberries, see the April 12, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)