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John Johnston: New Jersey deal a key component in Driscoll’s year-round blueberry program

The New Jersey blueberry deal is a “short, fast season,” starting in mid-June and running about six weeks, with “really nice quality berries,” and it “plays an integral role” in Driscoll’s year-round blueberry program, bridging “the gap between North Carolina and Michigan,” said John Johnston, blueberry business director for Watsonville, CA-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc.

New Jersey is among the older blueberry growing regions in the country, he noted. “They are great quality blueberries coming out of New Jersey ... and our customers expect to be able to source regionally grown berries from New Jersey when they are in season.” Driscoll’s customers “look for New Jersey berries” in season,” and we want to make sure we supply them” with the product they want, he added.

“The New Jersey season is overlapped by North Carolina on the front end of the deal and Michigan on the back end,” he noted. This year, “we expect the New Jersey season to finish strong, as Michigan appears to be two to three weeks late due to colder temperatures during the winter and spring,” he said.

The berries are packed under the “Driscoll’s” label and are shipped out of Hammonton, NJ, “which is known as the blueberry capital of the world,” he said.

New Jersey fresh blueberry production, industrywide, has been down for the last couple of years, but it appears that the state will produce a good crop this year, Mr. Johnston said.

In 2008, the crop totaled “about 45 million pounds of fresh berries for the industry,” he said. In 2009, production dropped to 40 million pounds, and last year it was just 32 million pounds. “The last two years were impacted by unfavorable conditions” that reduced supplies. But “we expect 2011, as an industry, to be a good year. Bloom and initial fruit set are really good, and ... we are optimistic about the season,” anticipating that production will “probably be getting back” to the 2008-09 levels.

Timing appears to be normal or “maybe just a few days late,” he said.

As a company, Driscoll Strawberry Associates “is focused on a complete berry patch which is satisfying our customers’ needs for all four berry types: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries,” Mr. Johnston said. “We are definitely year round.”

Blueberries are “a strong part of our overall berry patch program,” he said.

Driscoll has blueberry production in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Canada as well as in several states on the western and eastern coasts of the United States. “We are in all major production regions in the U.S.,” he said. “By major, I mean any region producing over 5 million pounds a year.”

On the East Coast, “We start in Florida, usually the first of April,” with overlapping production moving northward into Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey and then Michigan as the season progresses, he said.

On the West Coast, the company has blueberries in several districts, principally the San Joaquin Valley. The timing for the San Joaquin Valley production “is mid-May through the end of June, so it doesn’t have much impact on the New Jersey season,” Mr. Johnston said.

Moving up the coast from California, Driscoll also has blueberry production in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Canada, carrying the season “all the way through the end of October.”

In Mexico, the production season is long, running “most of the year with the exception of July, August and September.” However, “the overall production in these regions is still relatively small, and they aren’t significantly contributing to the overall blueberry industry’s supply curve yet,” he said. “Those are newer production regions. But we see a lot of potential coming out of Baja and central Mexico” in the future.

In packaging, “we are seeing a trend towards larger pack sizes throughout all regions,” Mr. Johnston said. Specifically, “we are seeing a lot of 18-ounce and two-pound packages in the bigger regions like New Jersey,” although pints continue to be “the primary package in New Jersey.”

The company “continues to focus on regionally grown berries,” he said. And for the New Jersey berries, “we will be featuring ‘Jersey Fresh’ on our label and promoting it with customers throughout the eastern U.S.” during the New Jersey season.