Growers Seek to Protect the Industry from Mexican Competition and Innovate through Good, Old Fashioned Ingenuity

Florida blueberry growers are battling Mexican farmers for their lucrative spring marketing window.  With the Mexican blueberry crop up 70 percent, supplying more than double the estimated Florida crop of 18 to 20 million pounds in 2017, the Florida Blueberry Growers Association is supporting an update of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“The massive importation of Mexican blueberries during our production window is crippling the Florida Blueberry industry,” the FBGA board wrote in a June 12 letter, on behalf of its members.  “Mexico realizes several cost savings benefits in the form of lower labor costs and environmental standards, which puts Florida producers at a competitive disadvantage.”  The letter was submitted as public comment on NAFTA negotiations with Mexico and Canada, which will begin no sooner than August 16, 2017.

The FBGA board expresses support for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s request for an investigation into Mexico’s “unfair trade practices” hindering the state’s blueberry industry.  Putnam asked U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for the investigation in April.

The FBGA indicates in its letter that the Mexican threat is growing.  “In 2017, Mexico has already exported in excess of 36 million pounds into our U.S, Market,” the board writes.  “With the very significant expansion of commercially planted acreage they are currently undergoing, Mexico will soon pass Georgia, the largest producer of fresh blueberries in the U.S. (44+ million pounds in 2016).”

Government data shows Mexican blueberry production netted $133 million in 2015 to Florida’s $82 million.  Mexican receipts climbed to $145 million in 2016; Florida’s receipts weren’t available.  “Mexico’s shipments during March, April, and May have increased at an average annual rate of 46 percent [since 2012],” says Aaron Keller, Putnam’s Press Secretary.

The 2017 Florida crop was up from an estimated 13 to 14 million pounds in 2016, a dismal year.  Mexico’s crop was up from 666 truckloads of 40,000 pounds in 2016 to 1,133, according to a June 5 U.S. Department of Agriculture Daily Movement Report.

If the trend continues, Mexico will be a direct competitor, points out Dan Ebbecke, FBGA vice president.  “They’ll be in the same market, in the same window, in the same time as us,” he explains.  “If they produce as much fruit as we do . . . it [pricing] is going to get pretty soft.”

Dudley Calfee, FBGA president, and blueberry consultant, says the FBGA wants to make it easier for growers to compete.  “I’m going to try to communicate with the grocery store buyers and try to induce their loyalty to Florida growers, as long as they can before they jump,” says Calfee.

“If it wouldn’t have been for that [Georgia] freeze . . . I think people would really be crying the blues in the [Florida] blueberry world,” observes Ryan Atwood, a blueberry grower with about 40 acres in Umatilla and Dade City and an FBGA board member.

Increased competition from in state, out of state and international producers has made it harder for blueberry growers to make a profit, especially from a small commercial farm.  So more growers are upping the size of their operations or turning to u-pick.

“If you’re hiring people, you’ve got to cover that cost.  I think you’re going to have to be a minimum of 25 acres, 50 is more viable,” says Ebbecke, who has turned his Brooksville area farm into a u-pick.  “Two acres is not worthwhile . . . like it was 15 years ago,” adds Bill Rowe, owner and vice president of operations for W. G. Rowe and Sons in Winter Haven, a blueberry marketer.  “Unless it’s all u-pick.”

“We’re about to the point where we’re just wanting to do the u-pick and a variety of . . . vegetables, make it more of an outing for the people,” says Larry Davis, a Brooksville area blueberry grower for 20 years.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle,” says Andy Frederick, who has nearly 100 acres in Silver Springs, Lithia, and Arcadia.  His u-pick is on Yancey’s Blueberry Farm in Silver Springs, which opened for u-pick in 1966, and is feeling the effects of increased competition from u-pick operations statewide.

The 2017 season was long and there was plenty of labor because workers weren’t diverted to Georgia.  But as a result of last year’s shortage, some retailers lacked confidence in Florida’s ability to supply berries.

“They [Mexico] filled the entire void that Georgia left with the cold weather,” Rowe explains.  “The window of opportunity opened for them last year.  They were able to take advantage of it.”

Florida has an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 acres planted in blueberries.  It relies on varieties developed especially for the state by the University of Florida, manual labor, and the higher prices it can command when there are no other fresh berries in the marketplace.

A profitability analysis at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fe1002 shows Positive Net Values occur at average market prices of $4.30 per pound when 8,000 pounds of marketable berries are produced per acre.  Labor costs alone amount to some $1 a pound.  Ebbecke says some mechanical harvesting will be necessary in the future.  “Hand labor is just too expensive to compete at that level,” he explains.

UF’s Blueberry Breeding and Genomics program is developing varieties that work better with mechanical harvesters and are cheaper to grow, says Dr. Patricio Muñoz, an assistant professor in the program.  “We are trying to release three varieties this year,” he says.  Further details about these varieties are not available at this time.  His new website at blueberrybreeding.com, however, can help growers who are trying to decide what varieties to plant.

Though the crop rebounded from 2016, some growers like Frederick are planning to sell some acreage in order to modernize the rest.  “I want to stay in it.  I’m trying to do what I can to keep at it,” he says, adding he plans to sell his 30 acres in Lithia, either to scale back or concentrate his efforts on building his more modernized Arcadia farm.  Davis is trying to sell 10 of his 20 acres in blueberries in the Brooksville area.

“There’s going to be a lot of changes that people are going to have to make to stay in business,” points out Michael Hill, FBGA secretary and Atwood’s partner in H & A Farms packinghouse and Florida Ag Care in Mount Dora.

Competition is an old problem.  “Foreign competition has always been our biggest problem,” states Ebbecke, who has been in the industry since 1996.  But as Chile’s crop dwindled, it wasn’t hard for the Florida berries to beat the quality of those berries that had been on the boats.  “It was all ours.  We pretty much owned April,” he recalls.

As the industry grapples with increased competition, Calfee cautions against blaming growers’ problems on one single thing, whether it’s Mexican competition, a blueberry variety, marketing, or something else.  “It’s kind of unfair.  There are a lot of ways the grower can improve their operation on their own,” he says, such as bringing in an earlier crop and doing a good job.  “I think we’re going to see our squadron of intelligent innovators continue to build on their success,” he adds.

Calfee suggests growers join FBGA and participate in industry education opportunities.  An example is its fall meeting and trade show Oct. 26 at the Hillsborough Community College, Trinkle Center, 1206 North Park Road, Plant City.

Calfee also is seeking cooperation for a crop forecast system that can alert retailers ahead of time when there is a shortage.  “Produce buyers don’t like guesswork.  They will cover themselves with other supplies,” Calfee says.  Growers will be contacted with a survey, which they need to complete, he says.  The system could be ready in two years.

In the meantime, growers will have a new potential market next season.  The Plant City-based AgFreeze, slated to open in the fourth quarter of 2017, is interested in buying blueberries, strawberries, and tomatoes for its individual, quick-frozen process.  AgFreeze, the first of its kind in Florida, hopes to reduce waste and increase growers’ revenue.

“We can offer a consistent price all throughout the season,” says Amy Entress, its Chief Executive Officer.  “We don’t have to deal with the fresh market price fluctuations.”

CREDIT
story by CHERYL ROGERS
photos by LUIS BETANCOURT