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Pandemic adds pressure to California’s berry market

As larger volumes of blueberries have inundated markets already rattled by COVID-19, prices are dropping for farmers as the cost to bring their crops to market has risen. California blueberry production is expected to hit a record 77 million pounds this year, with peak production in the next two weeks, said Todd Sanders, executive director of the California Blueberry Commission.

American consumption, however, has not kept pace with the bigger volumes coming from California and other growing regions, particularly Mexico. Sanders said imports from Mexico continue to flood US markets, pressuring prices.

"Growers are really struggling," he said, adding that they're "making economic decisions" about whether to harvest their fruit this year. "We haven't even hit peak and we've seen the price drop dramatically as the volume increases."

COVID-19 has slowed retail foot traffic, with fewer shoppers buying fruit in stores, and supply-chain problems have slowed the berries reaching supermarket shelves, he added. Another challenge, he said, has been encouraging US retailers to buy local blueberries first before looking to often-cheaper Mexican imports.

Greatly reduced demand from restaurants, hotels and other food service buyers has dried up an important market that uses about 20% of the state's blueberries, Sanders estimated. Farmers and marketers whose food-service contracts were canceled now face a difficult time finding new homes for their berries. In a more-normal year, he said, they could try to sell fruit to processors for juice or for drying, but huge volumes have easily filled that market this year.

At the farm level, social distancing and other mitigation measures to combat the coronavirus have increased production costs by 20% to 25% in the field and in the packing shed, estimated Bill Steed of Fairfield Farms, a grower/packer in San Diego County.


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