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Why Your Blueberries Are More Expensive Than Ever

El Nino’s warm water and air is driving up blueberry prices in the US

Unusually warm weather devastated the blueberry crop in Peru this year in an ominous sign for blueberry lovers in the United States.

The resulting scarcity will make the fruit more expensive and more difficult to find, experts say.

The berry is more ubiquitous than ever thanks to varieties bred to grow in all manner of climates, but Peru is the world’s largest source of blueberries. And when Peru’s crop falls short, other countries have a hard time picking up its slack, agricultural experts say.

Roughly 130,000 hectares of blueberries were planted across the globe last year, with Peru farmers accounting for 17,500 hectares, the USDA estimated in January. That compares with the 80 hectares Peru grew in 2012.

The South American nation exported 275.8 metric tons of blueberries in 2022, around a third of the world’s total blueberry exports and three times as much as Chile, the world’s next largest blueberry exporter, according to the International Blueberry Organization. This year, it’s exported just 57,500 tons through Oct. 23, according to the most recent data from East Fruit.

Thanks to the decline in Peru’s blueberry crop, the 2023/2024 growing season could be the first in history to see a blueberry decline, East Fruit’s analysis says.

The retail price of blueberries in the United States surged to $6 per pound in November, a 60% increase since September, according to Forbes, which cited data from the consumer analytics company Nielsen IQ.

About half of Peru’s blueberry exports end up in U.S. produce sections, said Kasey Cronquist, president of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.

“You’re not seeing the same volume in grocery stores that you normally would,” he said.

This year’s El Nino weather pattern pushed temperatures higher during the harvest, which kept the fruit from blooming, experts say.

A 2019 study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that an El Nino weather pattern can raise global temperatures by as much as .36 degree Celsius, which is enough to exacerbate weather-related disasters like drought or extreme rain.

Blueberries require pollination from bees to flower, said Bill Cline, a plant pathologist for North Carolina State’s agricultural extension. “Peru had some weather that was not good for pollination,” he said.

With a blooming period only 5 or 6 days long, blueberries particularly vulnerable to swings in the weather, Cline said.

Patricio Munoz, a blueberry breeder for the University of Florida, said increased production in recent decades resulted in heightened demand.

“The U.S. is still the number one consumer, but now we have China, Asia and Europe,” he said.

That demand won’t fall simply because Peru experiences bad weather, Munoz said, which means the smaller supply will almost certainly push blueberry prices higher.

On the upside, agricultural experts say those costs could go back to normal once blueberry Peruvian production picks back up. The problems in Peru may just be a blip, “but it’s a big blip,” Cline stressed.

There was a time when blueberries were only grown in a handful of states and fresh blueberries were only available in the spring and summer. 

Now blueberries can be grown virtually anywhere on the planet, Cline said.

“This is the golden age of blueberry development,” he said.

Peru was one of the pioneers, Cline said. Farmers replaced dirt with soil more conducive to berry growing and irrigated the crop with cold mountain water to replicate the cold needed in the winter.

Those advances made Peru a titan in the global blueberry industry, Munoz said.

Even with Peru sending fewer blueberries abroad, industry insiders like Cronquist are confident blueberry production won’t drop off in the long run.

Blueberries require precise conditions to bloom and are therefore especially at risk from the extreme weather that climate scientists say will become more common as the plant warms.

 “They’re pretty sensitive,” Pam Knox, director of the University of Georgia’s Weather Network, said of blueberries.

Blueberries grown in the United States, for example, need a cold winter and a warm spring. A poorly timed thaw or frost can ruin a crop or result in a smaller harvest, she said.

Scott Lukas, who teaches berry production and management for Oregon State, said researchers who study blueberries will continue to develop new varieties to adapt to a warming world, offsetting some of the threats brought on by climate change, but also raising prices for consumers.

“The blueberry industry is resilient and they’re supportive of research,” he said.

Source : The Messenger