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Carolina Blueberry Association goes from niche marketer to mainstream

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. Tommy Smith, who has been growing blueberries for 32 years and has been chairman of the Carolina Blueberry Association co-operative for more than a decade, is a little surprised and quite delighted by the attention blueberries are garnering.

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Tommy Smith, chairman of the Carolina Blueberry Association, on his 130-acre farm in Garland, NC. (Photo by Amanda B. Thomas)
"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 said. "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 into the family blueberry business - and Mr. Smith's son has now joined the family business as well. The 130-acre Tommy Smith Blueberry Farms in Garland, NC, grows nothing but blueberries.

"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. Even though he has been at the helm, he is quick to give credit to others for the association's success.

"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, according to Mr. Smith. For years, North Carolina blueberries were only marketed in pint containers. Now the co-op offers 4.4-ounce, six-ounce, pint, 18-ounce, quart, two-pound and even 30-pound containers. "We've got a wide range, and if somebody comes up with something else they want them in, we'll find a way to do it," he 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 PrimusLabs and American Institute of Baking 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."