Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Produce Business.
Imported varieties collectively have doubled in three years.
Move over citrus. Berries are becoming as popular in the winter as they have been for years in the summer. Key to this is greater availability.
Imports of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries collectively doubled from 774.7 million in 2014 to 1.6 billion pounds in 2017, according to USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) data updated Aug. 15, 2018.
This offshore source, combined with onshore domestically grown fruit, is why berries ranked as the No. 1 fruit category in the United States last year, according to FreshFacts on Retail, 2017 Year In Review, published by the Washington, DC-headquartered United Fresh Produce Association.
“South America, Central America and Mexico all do a good job now with soft fruit, meaning that in January the berries taste great,” says Jason Kazmirski, director of produce and floral merchandising for the 70 independent grocers that are part of Tukwila, WA-based Northwest Grocers, which operates under banners such as Thriftway, Payless Foods, Red Apple Markets and IGA Markets. “This helps give the produce department diversity in the winter when citrus usually dominates. Berries are a strong 52-week category for us now.”
Demand for berries continues to grow, according to Jim Roberts, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms, headquartered in Naples, FL. “The category has been on an extremely impressive run, growing 4-12 percent per year for more than five years, with organic demand growing at twice that rate. Imported berries have had a very positive impact on this growth, and consumers expect to always find berries at their local grocery store.”
It’s not just one or two berries, says Bill Cotton, director of retail sales at Driscoll’s, in Watsonville, CA. “Shoppers expect a full patch, all four berries, in conventional and organic, year-round. This is now possible with the addition of offshore fruit.”
QUALITY & QUANTITY IS KEY
One reason for the lucrative nature of berries, especially those from offshore, is improved quality.
“Quality is more than just the condition of the fruit,” says Luciano Fiszman, blueberry category manager for the Redondo Beach, CA-based Gourmet Trading Company. “The USDA defines the condition, but the consumer defines quality. If they are not satisfied, they won’t come back to purchase fresh blueberries for a few weeks. Consumers’ expectations are higher now than some years ago. They are more educated today, and shippers have become better at delivering a better product.”
In many ways, says Kristina Lorusso, the Vero Beach, FL-based regional business development director for The Giumarra Companies, headquartered in Los Angeles, “growers are driving the trend toward bigger, better flavor berries because of their increasing market-savvy and understanding of what drives consumption. As a result, the berry category is competitive and quite exciting.”
A good example of this is what’s been happening in Argentina, where the industry has undergone a process of varietal renewal.
“Since 2012, Emerald and Snowchaser and new releases like Farthing and Kestrel are replacing the old varieties like O’Neal and Misty,” says Carla Genobili, manager of the Buenos Aires-based Argentinean Blueberry Committee (ABC), which projects 11,000 tons of the country’s crop to ship to the United States this season, with some 40 percent of that by boat compared with 18 percent for this mode of transportation last year.
“Argentina is positioning globally as an early supplier of high-quality and flavorful fruit, and these varieties comply perfectly.”
Similarly, says Kiah Ruvalcaba, marketing manager for Family Tree Farms, in Reedley, CA, which grows blueberries in Peru and Mexico, “our program is not merely to fill a domestic gap but to provide an equal or better-tasting imported blueberry. This program consists of MBO genetics (Australia’s Mountain Blue Orchards), including the Eureka variety, which results in a high-flavor, firm blueberry with the perfect crunch. We also offer an extensive jumbo blueberry program that provides a unique product and experience for consumers.”
Quantity is the second major reason for booming wintertime berry sales.
“We will once again see record volumes of imported berries coming into the U.S. market as new plantings come in to production. This is particularly true for all berry types in Mexico, blueberries from Peru and organic blueberries from Chile. This will allow for promotional opportunities in windows that were typically tight in supply,” says Naturipe’s Roberts.
Beyond this, he adds, “We will continue to see berry production in both Mexico and Peru grow at double digits for the next three to five years. There are numerous countries around the world planting berries, as the global trend is now following the U.S. market as it relates to berry consumption. The health halo and consistently good eating experience have really been a driving force across the globe and, as such, there are new plantings occurring on just about every continent.
“In terms of the U.S. market, Morocco and Colombia are likely to be added to the mix. However, Mexico will remain the dominant player because of their proximity to the United States, which allows them to ship by truck into every major city.”
More specifically in terms of individual berries, strawberries from Mexico are among those that have shown the strongest increases in consumption over the past two years as it relates to imported berries, according to Roberts.
Some 99.4 percent of strawberries imported in the United States during the 2017-2018 season were from Mexico, according to August 2018 USDA ERS data.
“We have cultivated a key relationship with Mainland Farms in Mexico and import strawberries from Oct. 15 through March 31, as well as blackberries and blueberries under the Red Blossom label,” says Craig Casca, chief executive and owner of Red Blossom, in Los Olivos, CA.
Chile leads offshore blueberries, representing 43.66 percent of this fruit imported to the United States during the 2017-2018 season, according to USDA ERS data. Mexico is next at 23.25 percent, followed by Peru at 12.24 percent.
“We start the import season with blueberries from Argentina and Peru in early September,” explains Tom Richardson, the Long Beach, CA-based senior vice president of global development for The Giumarra Companies. “We have increasing volume from Mexico and then move into a large program from Chile. We cover the entire import season from beginning to end.”
The company expects to have its biggest blueberry increase this season out of Peru, says Richardson. “Our primary supply partner is coming into greater production and continues to plant another 200 hectares this year, including what will be a solid amount of organic.”
The benefit of importing blueberries from Mexico is a competitive advantage in freshness, according to Driscoll’s Cotton. “Transport from field to retail is a two- to five-day truck ride rather than two weeks on a boat from South America.”
Family Tree Farms projects year-over-year volumes will be up 30 percent for its upcoming Mexican blueberry season.
“We export around 90 percent of our Mexican-grown blueberries to the United States, but we see increased global demand for this production window,” says Ruvalcaba.
North America is the largest blueberry export market for Chile, with 64 percent (70,904 tons) of all volume shipped to this market last season from November to March, according to Karen Brux, the San Carlos, CA-based North American managing director for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.
“With organic produce consumption continuing to increase, we’re also seeing increased production of organic blueberries from Chile. During the 2017-18 season, 12 percent of the total Chilean blueberry volume shipped to North America was organic. In terms of anticipated volumes for 2018-19, we expect numbers like last year,” says Brux.
Nearly 99 percent of imported raspberries arrive from Mexico, while this country also supplies more than 96 percent of blackberries to the United States with some 3 percent from Guatemala, according to USDA ERS data. This window runs from September to early June.
“Mexican raspberries and blackberries have been fairly flat as growers replace older varieties with new ones that will deliver better quality and flavor,” says Naturipe’s Roberts.
More volume has meant larger package sizes of offshore berries.
“The dominant pack for imported strawberries is still the 1-pound clamshell, but the 2-pound pack has shown strong growth over the past few years, with many retailers looking to carry both pack sizes as supply will allow,” says Roberts.
On blueberries, says Gourmet Trading’s Fiszman, “Years ago, fall was dominated by 4.4-ounce clamshells. Now it is dominated by 6-ounce. We’ll start to see more pints earlier than in years past. More retailers are promoting the 18-ounce.”
BEYOND THE BIG FOUR
Strong consumer demand and retail sales of the big four berries – strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries – leads a retailer to ask three obvious questions. What’s new, what’s next, and what’s nearing greater availability thanks to imports to grow berry patch displays and gather incremental register rings? Two prominent fruits on this front are goldenberries and kiwi berries.
“Goldenberries are available year-round out of Colombia and from domestic sources, although February to March are when supplies tend to be tightest,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, in Los Angeles.
“We have seen about a 12 percent sales increase over the year prior driven by greater availability and consumer awareness. We anticipate a 12 to 15 percent increase this season, especially as Ecuador is expected to get clearance to export its fruit to the United States for the first time this fall.”
Known by many names, such as Cape gooseberries, husk cherry, Peruvian ground cherry and Inca berries, these last two due to its native origins in the Andes, the Goldenberry is marble-sized, bright orange in color and sweet-tart in taste. Some importers sell the fruit in its husk, an outer covering reminiscent of the fruits botanical cousin, the tomatillo, or huskless.
Goldenberries can be eaten out of hand like other berries or made into sauces or chutneys. Most are sold in 3- to 4-ounce clamshells.
“Kiwi Berries are available from New Zealand and Chile from February through April,” says Alex Jackson Berkley, assistant sales manager for Frieda’s Specialty Produce, in Los Alamitos, CA. “The fruit is available domestically from September to October.”
The kiwi berry is a mini-me relative of the larger kiwifruit, but without the fuzzy skin. Like its namesake, it’s very high in vitamin C. Eaten out of hand, tossed into smoothies, made into jam or added whole to fruit or poultry salads are popular culinary uses.
“Sales of kiwi berries are fairly consistent from year to year, about a 5 percent increase in interest from year to year,” says Melissa’s Schueller.
Display Goldenberries and kiwi berries with other mainstream berries.
“When in season, these fruits should be merchandised with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries with at least 1 to 2 facings, rather than in the tropical set. Or ideally, as part of a double sided or adjacent display with berries on one and tropicals on the other,” suggests Frieda’s Jackson Berkeley.
BOOST SALES IN STORE
January is almost as important as July to promote berries as is July for some retailers.
“We run berry promotions right after the New Year when everyone is thinking about getting back to the gym and eating more healthfully,” says Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral for Redner’s Markets, a Reading, PA-based chain with 44 markets and 13 quick shoppes in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
Last year, Redner’s partnered with the Chilean Blueberry Committee in a sales-and-display contest for produce managers. There were three additional elements to the 14-day promotion. First, Chilean blueberries were advertised in the store’s circular at 2 pints for $5. Secondly, the chain’s registered dietitian created a video that showed how to make a chicken blueberry salad. Third, Redner’s ran a Facebook contest that asked shoppers to submit a photo of how blueberries helped them to keep their New Year’s resolutions. Shoppers who did were entered into a drawing to win $100 cash as part of Redner’s reward program to purchase fresh produce in-store.
“In the past, many retailers have had to decrease the size and SKU count of their winter berry displays, which resulted in reduced sales and customer penetration,” says Jim Roberts, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms, headquartered in Naples, FL. “With all the new options, we can support bigger displays, more promotions and better consumer messaging, both in terms of in-store point-of-sale, as well as digital and social media platforms.”
Increasing promotional frequency is a strong tool many retailers use to drive growth in the category.
“Our goal is to always be ahead of the peak production periods and organize and initiate promotions before they peak rather than right at the time a production peak starts,” says Craig Casca, chief executive and owner of Red Blossom, Los Olivos, CA. “This enables the grower and retailer to create prolonged enthusiasm and excitement at the retail level, greater values for consumers as well as create smooth channels to move any extra production so that product quality and freshness is maximized.”
Price is now driven more by availability of supply than by where the berries are grown, according to importers.
“Actually, price on winter berries is more accessible than in the spring when some states produce fruit,” says Luciano Fiszman, blueberry categroy manager for Gourmet Trading Company, Redondo Beach, CA. “Price in the fall is probably the highest right now, but the difference is not as much as some years ago. With the entrance of Peru and Mexico, pricing will get flatter a lot quicker. This will allow fruit to be less expensive to consumers, and therefore more consumption will take place these months that are not as traditional as others — for now, that is.”