Determined, Not Defeated

Florida Blueberry Growers Regroup After Troubling Trade Ruling

United States blueberry growers swallowed a bitter pill this winter after their plea with the U.S. International Trade Commission to stem the tide of imported blueberries.


Countries like Mexico, Peru, and Chile are overwhelming the U.S. market with their product, putting the squeeze on domestic growers who must yield to higher quality standards, pay more for labor, and undergo annual third-party audits.


After hearings and testimony, the USITC told blueberry growers in February, in a unanimous vote, that imports weren't injurious to their production. It said that fresh, chilled, or frozen blueberries don’t arrive from other countries in quantities that could harm or threaten to harm the domestic industry.


“I was disappointed,” says Ryan Atwood, who runs Atwood Family Farms, one of three growers for H&A Farms. “I was hoping that there’d be some remedy to give us some transition time to deal with the influx of the foreign fruit that’s come upon us.”


“(The ruling) was a real problem for us,” says John Walt Boatright, Director of National Affairs at Florida Farm Bureau Federation.  “It has implications for all of Florida’s agriculture, based on that determination. We’re still trying to determine the effects of that.” 


In the period from 2009 to 2019, U.S. blueberry growers saw imports from Mexico increase by 2,111%, according to Brittany Lee, Executive Director of Florida Blueberry Growers Association.


Lee also serves as treasurer on the Executive Committee with the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council and is the Vice President and Farm Manager of Florida Blue Farms.


Blueberries boast a heightened status since they've been deemed a superfood. The pigments in the skin are rich in the antioxidant anthocyanin. As such, blueberries are shown to decrease antioxidant levels in the body, according to the National Institutes of Health.


While blueberry consumption is at a peak, Florida and other blueberry-growing states continue to be hamstrung by the cost of labor, compared to other countries, like Mexico.


“It’s hard to compete with them because their cost of labor is one-tenth of ours,” Atwood says. “Half of your budget is labor, so it’s pretty difficult.”


Florida’s south and central farms ramp up production in March. The state will be in full production starting at the end of March through mid-May. 


That’s when Mexico floods the market with its product, too.


“They bring a lot of fruit in our window,” Atwood says.


While imports from several countries like Chile and Peru play a role in undermining Florida’s blueberry production, Mexico “by far” creates the vast majority of import pressures, Lee says.


American blueberry pickers can fetch $11 per hour while the grower pays for overhead like the cost for processing visas, transporting workers, and paying for workers’ housing.


The cost of labor in Mexico is $10 or less per day for a blueberry farmer, Lee says. “All of those things add up, and it’s impossible to compete with $10-a-day labor.”


Because of the squeeze, there’s an emphasis on pivoting toward mechanization and reinvesting in new blueberry varieties.


Harvest machines can cost anywhere from $160,000 to $250,000 apiece. The large capital investment serves to offset the labor cost by reducing the cost per pound to pick the berries.


Atwood says he is working on finding solutions. He gave his own harvesters to a business partner who owns a mechanical harvesting company. He now contracts with the company to pick blueberries on his farm.


“I don’t have to find more employees during my busiest part of the year,” he says.


Atwood is a first-generation farmer and serves on the Industry Relations Committee with the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. His farm grows two southern highbush varieties, Emerald and Flicker. Emeralds are known for being large with high yields. Flickers are considered “evergreen” and vigorous growers.


Florida growers also have a higher threshold for ethical standards, such as being responsibly and sustainably sourced. They place a higher standard on food safety and must undergo a third-party audit during picking seasons.


Being more competitive means economizing, blueberry growers are acknowledging.


Economizing could mean growing more efficiently with the labor used for picking the blueberries or it could mean using more machines to harvest. It also may mean experimenting with other plant varieties that are crispier and higher-yielding.


“Every grower needs to figure out their operation and figure out where they can get lean to compete,” Lee says.


Which is how Atwood sees it. In agriculture, tenacity is a required trait.


“Sometimes you persevere through, and, hopefully, things will turn out,” Atwood says. “You have to be an optimist to be a farmer.” 


While growers are learning new techniques, exploring new blueberry varieties, and pushing the envelope on methods of efficiency, Lee stresses the battle is not over.


The American Blueberry Growers Alliance and Florida Blueberry Growers Association are continuing the momentum.


The industry will continue to seek approaches to mitigate the damage caused by the imports during Florida’s spring harvest, says FBGA President Leonard Park.  


“Though our growers are super busy now with harvest, the planning process is underway, which we hope will focus our efforts to improve our industry's competitiveness. Our ace in the hole is still the fact that blueberries grown in Florida truly are much fresher.”

TERESA SCHIFFER contributed to this report

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