Blueberry Marketing Options
Blueberries are versatile and well-suited to a variety of marketing techniques. Many factors should be considered in developing a marketing plan for a specific operation. Blueberries may be marketed wholesale as fresh or processed products. Marketing cooperatives have been established to sell the large volumes of fruit in most major production regions. Sale of berries for processing might be the easiest market to provide for since some fruit quality requirements are less stringent and processed products are less perishable than fresh fruit.
Berries for processing can also be harvested mechanically, reducing picking costs and the need for seasonal labor. However, processed blueberry prices are typically lower than fresh blueberry prices, so profit margins may be narrower.
Producers located near significant population centers may find direct marketing (direct to the consumer) most rewarding. Direct sales include farm or roadside marketing and pick-your-own (PYO) or U-pick. The primary advantage of direct marketing is that retail prices are higher than wholesale (no middlemen or commissions are paid). However, direct marketers must assume liability for customers, provide parking and sales facilities, and have a flair for promotion and an ability to work with people.
Most highbush blueberries produced in North America are sold to retailers, food manufacturers, or institutions. The primary market areas have traditionally been in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago. Because these outlets require a relatively large volume of product, they are most effectively served by larger producers or marketing cooperatives.
Compared to other major fruit industries, relatively few producers grow, harvest, and deliver blueberries to a processor who then assumes ownership and distributes the product to wholesalers and retailers. Many large independent growers perform all these functions themselves, while smaller individual growers may unite with others to form marketing cooperatives to carry out these functions.
Cooperatives may consist of a few growers packing under the same brand label or multi-producer organizations (e.g. Michigan Blueberry Growers Association). In the Pacific Northwest, fresh berries are primarily marketed by individual producers either locally or to distant markets. Processors in Washington and Oregon sell their frozen bulk pack products mainly in the West, while their retail packs compete throughout the United States. Approximately 40 percent of Northwest fruit is sold fresh and 60 percent is processed.
Blueberries can be marketed directly to customers through PYO, roadside, or on-farm sales. Many states have direct marketing or farm marketing associations that are valuable resources for those new to direct marketing. Check with your Department of Agriculture for required permits. Effective direct marketing requires considerable planning, an appropriate location, and a sufficient customer base. Successful direct marketers also need an interest in and an ability to deal directly with customers on a daily basis. Required farm facilities include parking, a market building or checkout area (PYO), and bathroom/wash facilities.
An appropriate location is essential. The facility should be on an improved road either near an adequate population base or on a heavily travelled route. Studies on PYO strawberries indicate that a population of 1,000 is needed within 30 miles to market the berries from an acre. Similar studies indicate that individuals are unlikely to drive more than 25 to 30 miles to visit a farm. These are likely good “rules of thumb” for assessing market size and potential. However, marketers may attract customers from greater distances in areas where few blueberries are grown. Tourism may provide additional customers in popular resort areas.
Begin direct marketing slowly and gradually increase the volume as you become familiar with the demand in the area. Successful marketers often develop their clientele base gradually over many years. Sales from a small shed or garage may provide a low-risk initial approach to direct marketing.
Pick-your-own (PYO) has been a successful blueberry marketing technique for many people. Numerous guides on PYO marketing have been developed. An excellent reference is Pick-Your-Own Farming (see Bibliography). This publication also contains a list of Extension Service publications from each state related to PYO farming.
Successful PYO farms usually share these characteristics:
- Operators like people and are friendly, honest, and courteous. They provide prompt and individual attention and instructions on how to harvest, handle, and use berries.
- Farms are easy to find, neat, and well-kept. Parking is adequate to handle even the largest crowds.
- Plantings are well-managed and fruit quality is high.
PYO operators must provide a pleasant experience and high quality berries at a reasonable price to compete with local stores.
Cultivar selection is critical. Customers want large berries with good appearance and flavor that are easy to pick. Cultivars must also be chosen which extend the harvest season as much as possible (early, mid-, late season). Extremely late varieties may not be preferred in some regions if they ripen after the school year starts and customer numbers decline. Cultivars that are reliable producers may be preferred over less consistent cultivars with higher yield potentials. Consistent crops are needed to build a reliable customer base.
Pruning practices require close attention. Annual, detailed pruning is needed to maintain berry size and ease of picking. Customers typically make larger purchases when picking is fast and easy (see Blueberry Pruning).
Keep plantings free of weeds. Berries on lower branches are hidden by weeds and usually lost. Air movement is reduced by weeds and plantings remain wet longer following heavy dew or rain. Row middles in PYO plantings are best maintained in a permanent sod cover. Closely mowed sod provides a pleasant picking environment and improves access following heavy rains.
This fact sheet is adapted from Oregon State University Extension Publication PNW215, Highbush Blueberry Production. The authors of Highbush Blueberry Production are – Oregon State University: Bernadine Strik, Glenn Fisher, John Hart, Russ Ingham, Diane Kaufman, Ross Penhallegon, Jay Pscheidt and Ray William; Washington State University: Charles Brun, M. Ahmedullah, Art Antonelli, Leonard Askham, Peter Bristow, Dyvon Havens, Bill Scheer, and Carl Shanks; University of Idaho: Dan Barney. PNW215, Highbush Blueberry Production can be purchased from the Department of Extension & Experiment Station Communications, Oregon State University. How to Order