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North Carolina blueberry growers anticipate strong supplies on market

North Carolina blueberries should be hitting supermarket shelves in good volumes as summer approaches.

There should be a good supply of blueberries on the market by June 1. “But demand is also increasing, so we expect that product will move smoothly,” said Rod Bangert, general manager of the Carolina Blueberry Association, a grower cooperative headquartered in Garland, NC.NC-blueberriesWeather patterns delayed harvesting this year, but good supplies of Carolina blueberries are expected. (Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University)

New Jersey’s start always has an effect on prices. A lot of berries on hand coming from all Eastern growing regions could make for some strong promotional opportunities.

“We work closely with two retailers,” said Mr. Bangert. “If I know we’ll be heavy in volumes in a particular week, I’ll call them to say that we can double their allotment that week, giving them an opportunity to promote the berries.”

Founded in 1941, the Carolina Blueberry Association is the oldest farmer-owned cooperative in North Carolina. Since then it has consistently serviced its customers with quality blueberries. Its annual harvest season runs from mid-May through mid-July.

The organization has 24 cooperative members, the majority located in Bladen County, with the remainder in adjacent counties. Grower-members of the association boast having nice relationships with their customers.

“And with the increase in demand on blueberries every year, we’re able to move product and get growers a nice return,” Mr. Bangert noted.

The association’s house label is “Bonnie Blue.” It is used on about 75 percent of what the organization ships each year. It also offers private-label branding.

Besides servicing the fresh market, the cooperative also supplies the frozen market with blueberries. “About 70 percent goes to the fresh market,” said Mr. Bangert. “The balance goes to the frozen market. Sales on the frozen side typically go for processing and poly bags for retailers. Our fresh blueberries are shipped 12 pints per flat.”

The cooperative runs between 6 million and 7 million pounds of fresh blueberries each year and between 3 million and 5 million pounds go to processing. The growers pick between 9 million and 10 million pounds a year.

The Carolina Blueberry Association’s members produce all the top blueberry varieties, running them on a seasonal schedule from May through early August. The variety run times are scheduled to ensure consistent supplies throughout its season.

The association’s members are on top of their food-safety initiatives. Each grower has packing facilities on the farm and each has implemented quality assurance programs on every packingline.

“Our growers practice safe farming techniques as well as safe handling in the post-harvest season,” said Mr. Bangert. “Shipment tracking is monitored daily through internal systems and lot identification. Third-party audits are AIB-certified and posted on Primus.”

The association’s primary customers are retail outlets. It also sells direct to retailers and others through brokers.

“The crop looks extremely good this year,” said Mr. Bangert. “It’s a heavy crop and the quality is outstanding. If the weather cooperates, and if we have the labor we need to move it, this should be one of the best years we’ve had from the fresh market perspective.”