Blueberries to China:
BC Berries Take on New Roles and Regions
There’s something about big, luscious blueberries from British Columbia. While locals have always known BC berries are the best, people around the world are beginning to get the message and it’s leading to a lot of demand.
June 2015 marked a milestone for blueberry growers in Canada. After almost a decade of effort, China will soon be importing berries that set the standard for world’s best. There were initial concerns from local consumers there wouldn’t be enough berries to go around; but Debbie Etsell, executive director of the BC Blueberry Council, assures there are more than enough.
“Don’t worry. We have enough blueberries,” she says.
In fact, with debates about too many blueberries in the market in previous years, growers will benefit from looking at strategies for diversification to ensure there are even more ways to get blueberries in the hands of consumers locally and around the world. Processes like drying, juicing and freezing are common, but blueberry products such as chocolates, jams and baked goods are on the rise as well.
Local processors like Fraser Valley Packers, Snowcrest Foods and Pacific Canadian Fruit Packers provide the more common processing activities while other processors, and even growers themselves, explore the new opportunities.
Since 2001 Terry Bremner of Bremner’s Foods has been creating pure fruit juices without fillers or additives. Blueberry juice was the product that launched a line of real fruit juices. Those berries are grown, juiced and bottled locally; so the blueberry juice from Bremner’s is truly a home-grown, value-added product.
Another berry grower who is exploring the beverage market is Arina Onnink of Abbotsford’s Onnink’s Blueberry Farm. Onnink had no interest in being a blueberry grower, but when her father passed away and left her with the farm, she knew she could do great things with her 18 planted acres.
She saw young people drinking artificially sweetened drinks like pop and explored the creation of something tasty and decaffeinated.
“There’s no sugar in it,” she says of her blueberry iced tea. “It’s sweetened with organic honey. I knew we had to invent something they [youth] can drink—something healthy.”
Chocolates were next on Onnink’s list with blueberry chocolate bonbons sweetened with organic honey. The bonbons come in numerous flavours like La Truffle Kaufman, Le Citron and Mint Romance. Onnink even makes a blueberry organic coffee as well as baked goods with blueberries, all available for sale in her farm-gate shop.
Another adventurer into the world of blueberries and chocolates is Abbotsford-based ChocolaTas, award-winning chocolatiers. In 2015 Wim Tas created the Berry Box which included chocolates made from organic blueberries.
“We are the mecca here for berries,” says Wim of the Fraser Valley. “We are the centre of the earth for berries.”
Food producer Nature’s Path, based out of Richmond BC, is a prime example of using organic food, and the company’s origins stem from a family-run berry farm. Today the organization creates a number of items that include blueberries.
While these examples of blueberry extension products are local, some of the players operate on a national or international level. But, embracing new opportunities isn’t the dream for every grower. Some simply want to grow the best fruit possible and ensure they have a market for it. With it being just a matter of time before BC blueberries are exported to China, growers will continue to have options for the sale of fresh berries.
Chinese inspectors have reviewed protocols—packaging, temporary storage, cooling, etc. to ensure Chinese requirements are in place, but it is unknown at this time when the process will be finalized.
The demand for the fruit in China is bolstered by knowledge of how healthy blueberries are, and specifically blueberries from BC. The Chinese market is already gearing up for sale of fresh fruit and value-added products.
“And the romance of where we grow it and how we grow it,” Etsell adds. “It’s grown naturally, you’ve got mountains and you’ve got fresh clean water. Just that imagery is very important in China.”
For Etsell, the biggest concern is quality. This pressure will grow if ocean shipping is established in addition to the current plan of air shipping. She acknowledges that some varieties ship better than others and that the Chinese market has certain expectations of the fruit that comes from Canada. She pegs the size of the Chinese market demand at 50 million pounds.
Whether fresh, frozen, juiced or made into chocolates, BC blueberries continue to find their way to consumers old and new.