Berries produced in the United States have enjoyed unprecedented sales on the world market recently, says an executive with an international bank involved in food and agribusiness, but that growth might be slowed if the value of the U.S. dollar continues to rise.

“The low dollar, combined with increased demand for berries, has given U.S. farmers a special opportunity to expand their exports,” says Marieke de Rijke, assistant vice-president of food and agribusiness research for the Rabobank banking group of the Netherlands. “Overseas demand has grown and continues to grow, particularly for raspberries and blueberries.”

But she cautions the strengthening of the dollar is not a good sign for further export of berries.

“I don’t know how sustainable our exports will be in the environment of a stronger dollar,” she says. “It will be even more important to stand out by quality.”

There has certainly been plenty of good news for berry growers lately:

• Japan has increasingly become a marketplace for blueberries.

• Canada remains the top export target for strawberries, accounting for more than 80 percent of the exports, and Mexico takes 12 percent. But demand for strawberries may be leveling off.

• In markets where domestic blueberry production can’t keep up with demand, such as northern Europe or Asia, there are new opportunities for U.S. berry farmers.

Providing a backstop for all this is the domestic market, says de Rijke. “The U.S. consumer appetite for blueberries has most likely not been fulfilled, which creates additional domestic growth opportunities.”

Promotion of the health benefits of berries in foreign markets has pushed demand up beyond U.S. borders.

“Over the past several years, demand for all U.S. berry varieties has grown significantly due to increased consumer awareness of their health benefits,” says de Rijke.

In the short-term, demand for blueberries and raspberries is expected to continue growing, she says. “They are the type of fruit today’s consumer is looking for: Convenient, healthy and available year-round,” she points out. “In the medium to longer-term, however, demand for berries — strawberries in particular — are expected to grow at a more gradual pace.”

In the United States:

• Fresh blueberry consumption is up 65 percent.

• Fresh raspberry consumption is up nearly 300 percent.

• Fresh strawberry demand is up 45 percent from 2001 to 2006.

“This growth has kept prices strong and has encouraged farmers to expand production acreage,” says Rijke.

The United States ranks No. 1 in the world in strawberry production and accounts for more than a quarter of the global annual production.

California is the main strawberry-producing state with 88 percent of total U.S. production. Florida and Oregon are a distant second and third with 9 percent and 1 percent of the market share, respectively.

In 2007, total U.S. production reached approximately 2.5 billion pounds with a net worth of more than $1.7 billion, a record high.

During the past decade, U.S. strawberry consumption has increased significantly from 5 pounds per capita in the mid-1990s to nearly 8 pounds in 2007.

“Growth in consumption is driven by a growing consumer awareness of the nutritional benefits derived from berries,” says de Rijke. “Additional demand for fresh strawberries, stimulated by increased domestic production and imports from Mexico and the Southern Hemisphere, has enabled consumers to get fresh fruit year round.”

Because U.S. strawberries are for the most part consumed domestically, export trade is relatively small, accounting for just 10 percent to 15 percent of production.

“That provides ample room for further exports,” she says.

Among the three major American berries, says de Rijke, blueberries, both wild and cultivated, make up the second largest berry crop in the United States. Blueberries are indigenous to North America, and production is now highly concentrated on this continent — the United States produces more than half the world’s supply. And, while 2007 production was down slightly from 2006, demand continues to increase.

“Blueberries, which are a rich source of antioxidants, vitamin C and fiber, have enjoyed increased demand as consumers continue to look for healthier and more nutritious diets,” de Rijke says. “Additionally, consumers also appear to prefer the convenience of eating blueberries because they don’t require any peeling or slicing.”

Fresh domestic production of raspberries — both black and red — is able to meet 80 percent of the demand. But rising consumption has enabled imports of fresh raspberries to increase significantly over the past few years.

From November to May, Chile and Mexico are the main suppliers of fresh raspberries, which make up about two thirds of U.S. raspberry imports. The remainder comes from Canada between June and August.

This increased availability has increased consumption, which opens the door for additional production, de Rijke says.

e-mail: cebickers@aol.com