President's Letter: The Blueberry Grower’s Pancake

… Or how Florida growers are getting squeezed between cost increases and pricing pressures.

By the time Florida growers read this, we’ll be waist-deep wrestling with the 2022 inflation alligator who’s trying to pull our bottom line below water. American families are well aware that food inflation is biting into their home budgets. Large-scale farming operations that grow commodities like corn, wheat, and soybeans and the global corporate processors are fairly good at passing along much of their cost increases to consumers. Blueberry growers are having the same cost increases, but will our small specialty industry be able to find some relief from our grocer-consumers, or will our farms be pancaked between our surging costs and the pricing lid held in place by surging imported fruit?

We all know costs are taking off:

  • Fertilizer is up so much that suppliers have to reprice for each delivery.

  • Ag chems are up, with some herbicides doubling and unavailable.

  • Labor is in short supply so agricultural wages are pressured to compete.

  • Energy price increases are in everything, including tractor and truck fuel. 

  • And hold on for a big jump in FOB pricing for your fruit delivery this spring.

  • Insurance in Florida is exploding. 

  • Growing supplies like irrigation, fabric, plants, and bark are moving up.

  • Equipment and parts are higher… if you can get them in time to keep going.

So how do we wrestle these costs down? Fortunately, growers are pretty good at these tactics and more:

  • Applying innovation and creativity

  • Using process improvement 

  • Investing in productivity-enhancing equipment and technology

  • Sharpening the pencil and keeping vendors competitive

  • Employing the 80/20 rule — fixing the 20% that causes 80% of the problem

Once we’ve lowered some of the inflation pressure on our costs…

How do we find relief from the downward pressure on the price of our blueberries? Will there finally be a fair price for our fresher and higher-quality local blueberries? Will consumers see the value of our American-grown fruit and pay enough to sustain our American blueberry farms? Or will the tidal wave of cheaper, weeks-old imports wash our industry away?  

I, for one, believe we can make our case with our customers that Florida-Grown blueberries are a great value and well-deserving of a premium price. Such a complex challenge will take a more strategic effort than in past years when global competition was not the predominant threat. Each of us growers needs to get involved in convincing the marketing and distribution chain that our fruit is worthy. Decisions by marketers, grocers, and consumers will decide our future.  

So what can you as a grower do to help move the needle our way? Start by getting involved with and supporting the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. Your Board of Directors is wrestling with these issues at every meeting. Get up to speed with the efforts of the USHBC and its new energy to make blueberries one of the fastest-growing produce categories.  Work with your marketers and grocers to build a two-way, win-win relationship that transcends just a two-month harvest sadly forgotten until the next season rolls around.  

Let’s not become a blueberry pancake in 2022.  We can figure out how to lower our costs. We can convince our customers that our blueberries and our American farms are worth their strong support. If we keep our customers happy and join with them to create a farm-to-table ecosystem, we can keep our businesses healthy for years to come.

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