Maine’s ‘superfruit’ — blueberries — making strides in frozen food market

Just-raked baskets of blueberries before they went through the winnowing machine to remove leaves and grass at Spruce Mountain Blueberries in Rockport Friday., July 23, 2010. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO GABOR DEGRE
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Just-raked baskets of blueberries before they went through the winnowing machine to remove leaves and grass at Spruce Mountain Blueberries in Rockport Friday., July 23, 2010. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO GABOR DEGRE
Posted July 23, 2010, at 4:06 p.m.
Blueberries are packed into quart containers at Spruce Mountain Blueberries in Rockport Friday, July 23, 2010.  Owner Molly Sholes said that fresh packed berries go mostlyto  local retail stores.  They also sell their berries to larger processors and produce several products of their own. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO GABOR DEGRE
BDN
Blueberries are packed into quart containers at Spruce Mountain Blueberries in Rockport Friday, July 23, 2010. Owner Molly Sholes said that fresh packed berries go mostlyto local retail stores. They also sell their berries to larger processors and produce several products of their own. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO GABOR DEGRE
Andrue Leach rakes blueberries in a Rockport field for Spruce Mountain Blueberries Friday, JKuly 23, 2010. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO GABOR DEGRE
BDN
Andrue Leach rakes blueberries in a Rockport field for Spruce Mountain Blueberries Friday, JKuly 23, 2010. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO GABOR DEGRE
Assisted here by UMaine student Jeremiah Antosch, Prof. Vivian Chi-Hua Wu, right, of the UMaine Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is working with the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission to develop an affordable and efficient way to deal with microorganisms on fresh fruit.  Traditional disinfectant practices include washing with plain or chlorinated water, but those techniques have lmitations.  Chlorine dioxide is a safe but expensive alternative, really only practical to this point in large-scale agricultural operations.  Prof. Wu's research involves producing chlorine dioxide by mixing compounds in a &quotsachet," a large plastic bag.   &quotWe're working with the blueberry industry to see how this can improve decontamination," she said. (Photo courtesy of UMaine)
Assisted here by UMaine student Jeremiah Antosch, Prof. Vivian Chi-Hua Wu, right, of the UMaine Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is working with the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission to develop an affordable and efficient way to deal with microorganisms on fresh fruit. Traditional disinfectant practices include washing with plain or chlorinated water, but those techniques have lmitations. Chlorine dioxide is a safe but expensive alternative, really only practical to this point in large-scale agricultural operations. Prof. Wu's research involves producing chlorine dioxide by mixing compounds in a "sachet," a large plastic bag. "We're working with the blueberry industry to see how this can improve decontamination," she said. (Photo courtesy of UMaine)
David Fish rakes blueberries in a Rockport field for Spruce Mountain Blueberries Friday, July 23, 2010.  BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO GABOR DEGRE
BDN
David Fish rakes blueberries in a Rockport field for Spruce Mountain Blueberries Friday, July 23, 2010. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO GABOR DEGRE

JONESPORT — This year’s wild blueberry harvest has begun and as sweet and wonderful as the little round berries taste fresh from the fields, producers are banking on capturing the frozen fruit market.

Of last year’s 88 million pounds of wild blueberries, only 600,000 pounds were sold fresh.

The remaining 87.4 million pounds were processed: sold as ingredients in muffins, ice cream and other foods.

But a new marketing campaign launched a year ago is reaping rewards, Sue Till of the Swardlick Marketing Group told more than 100 wild blueberry producers gathered this week at Blueberry Hill in Jonesboro, the University of Maine’s blueberry experimental farm.

Rather than attempt to capture the fresh market — which is already in the hands of cultivated blueberry producers in Michigan, California, New Jersey, Oregon, and a handful of other states — Maine’s wild blueberry producers are promoting frozen berries.

Till explained that because the berries do not get mushy or lose their flavor or healthful benefits, they have an edge over cultivated berries when frozen.

But Till said it is an uphill battle.

“Frozen fruit has a history of not being the greatest product,” she said. “There is a misperception by consumers about the quality once frozen. Once they try them, however, they are sold and they love them.”

Since the summer of 2009, Swardlick has been aggressively marketing wild blueberries in a wide array of ways.

Wild blueberries have taken center stage at health symposiums, trade shows, in magazine and radio ads, with chef partnerships, Web advertising and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

A recent New York Times campaign had massive results, Till said.

“This one campaign soared 375 percent above the industry standard [based on the website’s click-through rate],” Till said.

Till said her company does not have good sales data since the private companies do not share that with the advertising agency, “but anecdotally, things are moving in a good direction.”

Till said the wild berries’ presence in club stores, such as Sam’s Club and Costco, has given the product faster exposure to a greater number of people.

“The consumer is finally understanding the difference between cultivated and wild,” she said. Those differences — taste, performance, health benefits and the mystique of Maine — are emphasized in all the marketing efforts.

“Our intention is to own that supermarket fresh fruit case,” she said.

The results are concrete: Wild blueberries were named the second-best food for women by Health Magazine, a major industry coup, and Till said international interest has piqued. “North Korea is showing great interest, and we are exploring a market in China.”

Research projects at the University of Maine are having a great impact on consumers’ choices.

Blueberries already are known to have anti-oxidant properties and the marketing campaign calls them “superfruits” and “premium by nature.”

Research at the University of Maine includes attempts to link wild blueberry consumption to diabetes control and lower hypertension.

Meanwhile, workers already are harvesting berries across Maine, a full week and a half early.

David Yarborough, wild blueberry expert at the University of Maine, said it appears that because of some heavy frost losses in low-lying areas, the harvest this year will be less than last year’s — an estimated 70 million pounds versus 88 million pounds.

At this week’s field day, producers from Maine and the Canadian Maritimes reported similar conditions for all: frost damage, early picking, average to below average yield.

Yarborough told the producers that the cultivated crop is expected to be 470 million pounds, 20 million pounds above the 2009 harvest.

But the bottom line will be price, which producers are carefully watching after two years of dramatic price drops.

In 2007, wild blueberries fetched an all-time average high price of $1.07 a pound. Last year, the average was 36.3 cents a pound.

Much of that price is based on the cultivated market, said David Bell, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.

With 80 percent of the fresh market captured, cultivated berry producers sell their excess to the frozen market.

“When cultivated producers have a good crop and are forced to sell to the frozen market, it really hurts wild blueberry producers,” Bell said.

This year Bell and others are worried because cultivated blueberry farms in New Jersey and other places are reporting a lack of field workers. If the fruit is unable to be picked at its peak for the fresh market, it will be harvested and frozen.

On the frozen market, New Jersey got 62 cents a pound last year. Maine got 35 cents.

Bell said it is clear that creating a desire in consumers for a premium frozen berry is critical.

“We’re not going to make it in this business unless we can get a premium price for our product,” Bell said.

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