Michigan blueberry harvest kicks off with ceremonial first pick

The Michigan blueberry harvest is once again about to launch into full swing, and local growers are working long hours to ensure that the blueberries are picked, packed and available to consumers, retailers, restaurants and food manufacturers throughout the country.

Michigan continues to rank among the top states in highbush blueberry production with its growers expected to produce nearly 90 million pounds of blueberries in 2015 for fresh and frozen markets.

Bob Burr, mayor of South Haven, helped kick off the season for a ceremonial First Pick by visiting with local grower Chris Hodgman of Hodgman Blueberry Plantation, along with Larry Ensfield, president and chief executive officer of MBG Marketing,Naturipe-MI-First-Pick-2015Chris Hodgman of Hodgman Blueberry Plantation with Bob Burr, mayor of South Haven, MI, and Larry Ensfield, president and CEO of MBG Marketing. a grower-owned cooperative and a founding partner of Naturipe Farms, which manages the sales, marketing and distribution of the co-op’s blueberries.

“I am pleased to come to the MBG blueberry fields again to participate in the ceremonial First Pick, signifying that our Michigan blueberries are on the way to consumers throughout the country as well as to key export markets around the globe,” said Burr. “The family-owned blueberry farms in this part of Michigan have been a key part of our economic and community development for many generations.”

“These berries will reach markets such as Hong Kong and will demonstrate the demand for our high-quality products at a time when export is also a key economic driver for all of us in Michigan,” Ensfield said in a press release.

Hodgman, a third-generation blueberry grower-member of MBG, gave Burr a tour of his family farm in Grand Junction, MI, and discussed this year’s crop with the mayor and Ensfield. He shared that while the past two winters have certainly put some stress on Michigan’s fruit crops, including his own, his family has been growing blueberries for 85-years and they always find a way to produce a good crop come July.   

Ensfield knows all too well the challenges facing Michigan’s blueberry growers as they bring a crop to harvest. “It requires a tremendous amount of coordination between the growers, harvesting crews, Naturipe and MBG sales and support teams, packaging suppliers, packers and processors, and warehousing and transportation providers to keep our local industry thriving,” he said in the release. “Somehow we manage to get it all done — every year!”

MBG Marketing members represent a significant portion of the approximately 600 family blueberry farms in Michigan. In addition to the "Naturipe" brand fresh market blueberries, MBG’s Michigan-grown frozen blueberries will be used domestically and internationally.

Bland to appeal Vidalia pack and ship date ruling ‘just as quick as we can get to the courthouse’

Vidalia onion grower Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, told The Produce News July 7 he was surprised by a judge’s decision last week to side with Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black on a mandatory pack and ship date for the official state vegetable and plans an immediate appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.Delbert-BlandDelbert Bland

Though the ruling was delayed until after this year’s fresh Vidalia onion season came and went, Georgia State Appeals Court Judge Michael Boggs ruled June 30 that Black does indeed have the authority to set a mandatory pack and ship date for the official state vegetable, reversing lower court rulings.

The question of just when a Vidalia onion is ready to go to market has been a hotly debated topic for years. Judge Boggs’ ruling will not be the final say in the matter. Bland brought the initial challenge to Black’s rule and promises an appeal “just as quick as we can get to the courthouse.”

Bland’s legal advisors contend that Boggs did not consider the letter of the law in the case.

“We’ve never discussed the rights or wrongs of shipping early or shipping whenever, it’s all been about the law,” Bland said. “The whole case is about whether the commissioner had the right by law to change the rule.”

In August 2013, Black issued a mandate that no Vidalia onion can be packed or shipped sooner than 12:01 a.m. on the Monday of the last full week of April each year — April 20 this year.

Gary-BlackGary BlackBlack’s ruling came in response to complaints from retailers and customers that some early season Vidalia onions were not ready for market and tarnished the famous onion’s reputation. Since the State of Georgia owns the Vidalia trademark, Black said he was acting to protect the crop.

While most Vidalia growers supported Black, Bland challenged the commissioner’s order, claiming a calendar can’t determine when an onion is ready for harvest. A Georgia judge ruled in Bland’s favor in March 2014, saying Black had overstepped the authority of his office.

Black immediately filed an appeal, the results of which were initially expected prior to the beginning of this year’s Vidalia season. The 2015 crop is already in storage, but if Judge Boggs’ ruling stands, growers who pack and ship before April 25, 2016 face steep fines for doing so.

“If they were going to judge the fact of whether we can ship early or can’t, if they wanted to debate that, that’s one debate,” Bland said. “But what was presented to them was whether the commissioner had the right by law to change the pack date. I’m definitely appealing this and it is my [legal team’s] opinion that the judge ruled on something he wasn’t asked to rule on: Whether [Black] had the right to change the law. And he didn’t rule on that.”

Black’s office released a statement that read, “We would like to thank the court for their attention to this matter and are pleased with their decision as we continue to work with growers to ensure the quality of the Vidalia onion brand.”

Rain-starved Colorado awash in water

Dust Bowl rainmakers could not have done a finer job bringing on precipitation in rain-starved Colorado during this past spring. “We started in May with a rain cycle,” said Dick Wolfe, Colorado's state engineer. “Things really turned around.”

He said conditions during March were not as snowpacked as is typical for the Centennial State. “We were way behind,” Wolfe explained. “But May was a huge turnaround in what we saw.”

According to Wolfe, the National Weather Service has deemed the month of May the wettest month, setting a national record “which is pretty impressive.” He added that this is the first turnaround of significance to have occurred during more than a decade of drought.

“Reservoirs are full or nearly full,” he commented. “We've got good reservoir storage.”

Coloradans saw an extended winter season in 2015 with cooler-than-normal temperatures moving into May. Monsoonal flows, typically seen during the summer months, took hold early and resulted in heavier-than-normal springtime rains. News accounts were rife with stories about flooding or potential for flooding.

The flirtation with summer began in early June as temperatures climbed and rains diminished. But, as Wolfe noted, weather forecasters have been keeping their eyes to the skies and are predicting that rainy patterns will return in July and continue into September.

“July through September is supposed to be above-average precipitation,” Wolfe commented. “Colorado is right in the bull's-eye for rainfall predictions.”

Although the majority of Colorado falls outside the drought profile at the current time, he said areas from the western part of Colorado's San Luis Valley to Gunnison are still dry.

“By statute, water diversions are measured,” Wolfe stated about ongoing regulatory actions. “That's a given today. That's a rigorous part of our administration.”

According to Wolfe, the much-needed precipitation and favorable water storage condition mean that agricultural producers will have more water available for irrigation in 2015. “With good runoff and water supply, there aren't the calls on the river that been restricted in years past,” he explained.

Colorado is one of seven signatory states in the Colorado River Compact. Wolfe said the favorable water situation in 2015, “makes it a lot easier to meet and manage those obligations.”

California is one of the Colorado River signatory states. At the current time, Wolfe said the feasibility of some pilot projects in the upper basin is being evaluated to make some water temporarily available to lower basin states. “They've got to deal with it within the limits of what the law allows,” Wolfe added.

Church Bros. #ImperfectVeg program reduces food waste and water usage

Church Bros. is activating a new program to help reduce food waste and water usage; the company is calling its part of this emerging food trend #ImperfectVeg.

The idea is to sell edible fresh produce items that were previously discarded or not harvested and rotated back into the soil because they did not meet industry standards for cosmetic attributes.Vince-Ballesteros-with-ImperfectVeVince Ballesteros, Church Bros. vice president of business development, with a box of #ImperfectVeg.

“The trend is going viral in the foodservice sector due to the Compass Group helping tell the [Imperfectly Delicious Produce ] story and build awareness with restaurant operators, chefs and consumers,” Vince Ballesteros, Church Bros. vice president of business development, said in a press release. “We are seeing more support and requests for these edible and nutritious fresh produce items and we’re working with our distribution partners to make the introduction and implementation of these products is successful."

Kori Tuggle, vice president of marketing, said this emerging trend is a gift to the produce industry and its growers.

“Ideally, if we are able to educate chefs on what they are receiving, the #ImperfectVeg could be more acceptable with the foodservice sector as consumers choose off a menu description; compared to at retail where shoppers buy with their eyes,” Tuggle said.

Church Bros. will display its #ImperfectVeg product line at PMA Foodservice Expo in Booth No. 23.  The items include direct field-packed Romaine leaves and cauliflower; value-added broccoli fines, a by-product of florets and second-crop baby kale, baby chard and clip spinach.

“We are starting with a small number of items to trial first with the direction of Compass Group," Ballesteros said in the release. "Once we receive feedback, we will evaluate where there is opportunity to improve and expand the product list.”

Tuggle said, “It’s a win-win for all involved. Growers, foodservice operators and chefs benefit from the halo effect of the product’s story, and consumers want to do their part in helping reduce food waste and eat vegetables that use less water to grow.”

Brutally cold winter perfectly wonderful for New Jersey peaches

Few will forget the nearly unrelenting past winter that delivered storm after storm across the Northeast.

For some, however, those frigid temperatures were a blessing, notably the New Jersey peach crop.

Pegi Adam, director of communications for the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, told The Produce News that the cold put the trees into a sound dormant stage, and when the weather turned warm they burst into a great bloom.215-peachbloomsPeach blooms

“Growers are reporting they have great quality and volumes of peaches this year,” said Adam in mid-June. “They anticipate a normal season start at approximately the end of June. No pest issues were reported, also due to the cold winter.”

Under Adam’s guide the council takes to task the promotion of New Jersey’s peach crop. This year, as always, it is ramping up numerous exciting programs.

“We are doing our usual New Jersey peach events,” she said. “Increasingly more stores, farm markets and foodservice operators are jumping on board each year to participate in this promotional endeavor.”

The initiative began about five years ago. Each participant organizes its event to best suit its specific culture, and each is offered point of sale materials and banners provided by the council.

Farm markets, for example, dedicate a set period of time to engage in the peach campaign. Some hold contests or participate in those organized by the council, and have stands set up to offer New Jersey peaches and products made with the fruit. Some restaurants organize a menu for a set time frame where every course includes peaches.

“The first year we had 18 participants,” said Adam. In 2013 we had 35. Last year slacked off just a little, but this year I have a lot of new people coming on board to hold events, and I’m sure our numbers will be even higher. People are still booking, so we won’t know until the end of the season how many are participating.”

The council is once again holding its Perfect Peach Pie competition this season. This initiative started with six markets in 2013. Last year 18 markets participated, and Adam feels sure the number will increase even more this year because word of mouth has spread across the state.

“Participating markets pick their own judges, which are chefs, food writers and others deemed appropriate,” explained Adam. “The winner of each market is automatically entered into a final contest. Because of the size and configuration of New Jersey, we try to include an equal number from North and South Jersey. Last year’s contest was judged by chefs and people from the ‘Good Day Philadelphia’ morning show on Fox 29.”

Two grand prize winners receive a $300 prize. Information, including entry forms and rules are available from the council at www.jerseypeaches.com, and on facebook.com/newjerseypeaches. The winning recipes are posted on its website.

Adam is also focusing on supermarkets this year.

“Many people buy their Jersey peaches at supermarkets as opposed to farm markets,” she pointed out. “I’m doing some outreach, especially to staff nutritionists, this year to determine the potential. Store demos are a wonderful way to engage consumers.”

She also noted that some supermarkets like the option of selling peaches in clamshells, and that major packinghouses and distributors offer them in numerous sizes. Costco currently offers its Jersey peaches in clamshells.

“School lunch providers are now offering peaches,” said Adam. “Kids love peaches. And it would be wonderful for retailers to offer single peach clamshells that parents can simply pop into a lunch pail.”

The council continues its late season peach campaign. It’s long been a mindset that consumers switch to apples when school starts, but late season peaches are outstanding quality and they should be enjoyed as long as possible.

A new and major initiative for the council is its new video which is geared to produce directors, managers and produce staff.

“It demonstrates handling and displaying tips and advice,” said Adam. “We also now have a video for kids. They are available for viewing on our website.”