What drives China's phenomenal blueberry production?

Commercial blueberry production in China has been growing at a remarkable rate in recent years. Statistics for 2023 indicate that the number of administrative regions involved in blueberry cultivation across the country has now increased from the initial 10 to 27, spanning from the habitats of the Siberian tiger in the north to the tropical island of Hainan in the south. and from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the west to the Yellow Sea in the east. Meanwhile, the blueberry growing area has expanded from 10 hectares at the start of commercial production to 77.000 hectares today, now producing an average production of 525.000 metric tons each year.

Provinces currently at the forefront of China's blueberry farming efforts are Guizhou, Liaoning, Shandong, Sichuan and Yunnan.

When analyzing the increase in China's blueberry production, a key factor to consider is consumer demand. Over the past five years, demand for blueberries in China has grown at an annual rate of approximately 40%, in stark contrast to the much lower growth rates seen for many other fruits, which have typically ranged between 3% and 5%. However, China's per capita blueberry consumption remains far below that of Western countries, and there is still a considerable market to explore in third- and fourth-tier cities.

According to data published in a recent report on China's blueberry sector by Insight and Info Consulting, per capita consumption of blueberries in China is now 0,26 kilograms, about one-tenth that of the United States (2,63 kilograms in 2022). Meanwhile, industry estimates indicate that China's annual demand for blueberries is approaching one million metric tons.

An “era of great profits”

Although it has been more than two decades since the beginning of commercial blueberry production in China, the sector is still said to be in an "era of high profits." In Yunnan Province, for example, the value of production in the second year of cultivation usually reaches 150.000 Chinese yuan per mu ($311.000 per hectare), corresponding to a net income of 70.000 to 80.000 yuan per mu ( $145.000 to $166.000 per hectare) after excluding production-related expenses.

This attractive potential has attracted many companies to dedicate themselves to blueberry production, a trend that still continues.

Shenzhen Noposion Crop Science Co. Ltd., originally an agrochemical company, is one of the Chinese business giants that has made investments in the blueberry sector. With its production bases in Yunnan province, the company is currently focusing on expanding its cultivation area, which has increased from 6.000 mu (400 hectares) in 2022/23 to 20.000 mu (1.333 hectares) in 2023/24.

Once the new plantations have entered a stable production phase, their yield can be expected to reach 1,5 metric tons per mu (22,5 metric tons per hectare). In the first quarter of 2023, the company's sales volume reached 1.570 metric tons, with revenue of approximately 50.000 yuan ($6.900) per metric ton.

Increase in labor costs and uncertain future of national cultivars

One of the concerns now facing China's blueberry sector is rising labor costs, which are expected to persist in the coming years. According to Chinese blueberry growers, berry pickers were paid approximately 50 yuan ($6,91) per day in 2013, but this has since tripled to about 150 yuan ($20,73).

Additionally, as planting areas continue to expand and the harvest period lasts only a few months, some producers have had difficulty finding qualified workers.

According to industry standards, blueberries destined for the fresh market must be hand-picked to preserve the white covering known as bloom, which protects the berries from decay and prolongs their shelf life. Although mechanical harvesters are used in some other countries, these risk damaging the fruit and are often considered more suitable for berries intended for processing.

Looking at the situation from another perspective, producers agree that labor costs in China are lower than those in Western countries, and China's large population means that serious labor shortages are less likely to occur.

Another aspect that could impact the future development of the industry is the varietal range. Currently, the majority of blueberries grown commercially in China are of foreign origin, and developers hold patents and apply for protection of new plant varieties in China.

Although common cultivars grown in China exist and local researchers continue to generate new types, they have so far reportedly been unable to adequately compete with imported varieties in terms of quality and diversity.

There is a possibility that locally grown blueberry varieties will gradually lose their popularity among Chinese consumers, even when sold at lower prices, as more foreign varieties enter the market. Taking the Eureka variety from Australia as an example, its current price ranges from 60 to 80 yuan per jin (16,58 to 22,12 dollars per kilogram), while the price of the conventional Jewel variety is only 30 yuan per jin ($8,30 per kilogram).

Meanwhile, foreign blueberry producers continue to establish major production bases in China, with Driscoll's, Costa, Planasa and Agrovision already competing in the market.

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