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After 31 years farming, Tommy Smith, chairman of the Carolina Blueberry Association in Garland, NC, is a little surprised to find his industry has become an overnight sensation.

With blueberries showing category growth across the spectrum and consumption rising annually, what three decades ago was a niche product has in the last few years become a rising-star commodity.

"We've been fairly well pleased that blueberry consumption is increasing each year - naturally, I as a grower would like to see it increase a lot faster - but it is something that people are picking up," Mr. Smith told The Produce News May 12. "It's healthy, it's good for you, and all the advertising and all the health studies are helping that out. But sometimes I think we're looking at the bottom line so hard maybe we forget about the taste and how good it is."

It was that taste that led Mr. Smith to follow in his father's footsteps with the family blueberry business (Mr. Smith's son has now joined the family business as well), the 130-acre Tommy Smith Blueberry Farms in Garland, NC that grows nothing but.

"I had an aunt, she lived with us, and we would get off the school bus every afternoon and she would have blueberry muffins waiting for us," Mr. Smith recalled. "When you got off the bus you didn't walk to the house, you ran." The Carolina Blueberry Association is a co-op, and Mr. Smith has been its chairman for the past decade.

"We have some folks working with us who are pretty energetic and on the cutting edge," Mr. Smith said. "I'm very excited about the blueberry business and where we're headed. We are constantly working on developing new varieties with longer shelf life and better quality, we concentrate on trying to deliver a good product when you walk into supermarkets. Now the produce and fruit section that's a part of these stores, that really jumps out at you -- we have to have a good product, something that's very attractive, to promote there."

Packaging is part of the reason consumers are reaching for blueberries in the produce case more often. For years, North Carolina blueberries were only marketed in pint containers. Now the co-op offers 4.4-ounce, 6-ounce, pint, 18-ounce, quart, 2-pound and even 30-pound containers. "We've got a wide range, and if somebody comes up with something else they want 'em in, we'll find a way to do it," Mr. Smith said.

Food safety is obviously another area of great interest, and "we are highly involved with that and have been going through this process for seven or eight years," Mr. Smith said. The association is Primus- and AIB-certified and "I'm proud to say that we have been ahead of the curve as far as traceability. We've always had it where we could trace it down to the flat; we are doing some experimental stuff this year with tracing all the way back to the clamshell. We're trying to stay ahead of the curve and be prepared when Washington comes up with something that's mandatory."

(For more on Carolina produce, see the May 24, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)