Alternatives to Hand Labor in Blueberries
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February 28, 2022
Blueberries are the berries of perennial flowering plants
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that global blueberry production was 823,000 tons in 2019, including 309,000 tons produced in the US, 176,000 tons produced in Canada, 142,000 tons produced in Peru, 53,000 tons produced in Spain (Huelva), and 49,000 tons produced in Mexico.
Blueberry production and exports are expanding rapidly. Rabobank expects global blueberry exports to reach 900,000 metric tons by 2025/26, with 70 percent from five countries: Peru, Chile, Canada, Mexico, and Spain/Morocco. Peru is the leading blueberry exporter, sending half of its exports to the US. Peru produces blueberries year round, but production peaks in October-November. Blueberry production is expanding rapidly in Mexico, which had 11,000 acres yielding almost 10,000 pounds per acre in 2019.
Fresh blueberry exports are projected to be 900,000 tons in 2025/26, including 1/3 from Peru
Americans are eating more blueberries, which supports expanding US acreage and rising imports; fresh blueberry consumption averaged 2.5 pounds per person in 2020. Fresh fruit is often an impulse purchase, so fewer supermarket visits during the covid pandemic translated into lower fresh fruit sales even as government stimulus payments encouraged more fresh fruit purchases in 2020/21.
Americans consume 2.5 pounds of fresh blueberries per person
Three states, Oregon, Georgia, and California, each produced a sixth of US fresh blueberries in 2019. However, when production for both fresh and processing markets are combined, Washington and Oregon lead among states. Farmers receive about $2 a pound for fresh blueberries, but less than $1 a pound for blueberries that are frozen or processed.
Blueberry production is expanding rapidly in OR and WA
Production. US blueberry production is concentrated on a relatively few farms. Almost 16,000 US farms reported 153,300 acres of blueberries in Table 38 of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, but only 77 percent of these acres were bearing fruit, which indicates significant new plantings.
Almost 15,000 farms reported 113,200 acres of cultivated blueberries, including 246 farms that each had 100 or more acres and a total of 64,400 acres or 42 percent of total cultivated blueberry acreage. Another 1,100 farms reported 40,000 acres of wild blueberries, mostly in Maine. The 43 wild blueberry farms that each had 100 or more acres had a total of 30,000 acres or three-fourths of wild blueberry acreage.
States with the most cultivated blueberry acreage include Michigan, which had 785 farms and 22,960 acres in 2017, GA, 1,000 farms and 18,300 acres, WA, 922 farms and 12,800 acres, and OR, 1,000 farms and 12,200 acres. California had 440 growers with 7,200 acres of cultivated blueberries.
The US produced 283,000 metric tons of blueberries in 2020, including 153,000 metric tons or over half fresh blueberries. The leading producers of fresh blueberries were OR, 33,000 tons, CA 28,000 tons, GA, 20,000 tons, MI and WA 18,000 tons each, and NJ, 14,000 tons. British Colombia produced 29,000 tons or almost 95 percent of the 31,000 tons of fresh blueberries grown in Canada.
Several investment firms are developing large blueberry farms, including the planned 1,300 acre Othello Blueberry farm funded by Sustainable Ag Ventures and operated by Roy Farms based in Moxee, WA. Othello aims to produce up to 25,000 pounds of organic blueberries per acre and harvest them mechanically.
Othello Blueberry plans 1,300 acres of organic blueberries in WA
Labor. Blueberries can be harvested by hand or machine. Highbush cultivated blueberry plants are five to 10 feet tall and are grown like fruit trees, and the individual berries are picked by hand or machine. Lowbush or wild blueberry plants are a foot tall and raked by hand or machine.
Hand workers pick ripe blueberries into buckets for piece rate wages of about $0.50 a pound. Farmers receive about $2 a pound for fresh blueberries, making harvest wages a quarter of grower revenues, and higher with payroll taxes and supervision costs. Grower prices are highest early and late in the season, which encourages hand picking to maximize the pack out rate, the share of picked berries that are marketable. Some growers pay piece rates of $0.75 a pound or more early and late in the season when yields are lower and grower prices are higher.
A 2020 USITC survey of blueberry producers estimated that 15,000 production workers were employed for an average 560 hours to farm and harvest US blueberries. Average hourly earnings were $19 an hour in 2019 for farm and nonfarm processing workers combined. Harvest workers picked an average 36 pounds of blueberries an hour at an average piece rate of $0.52 a pound to earn $18.72 per hour.
Blueberry harvesters who were paid $0.52 a pound earned almost $19 an hour in 2019
|Item||Calendar Year||January to September|
|Reported production and related workers (PRWs) (number).--|
|Total reported PRWs||15,474||16,044||16,383||15,706||15,993||16,546||16,086|
|Total hours worked (1,000 hours)||8,424||8,987||9,832||8,358||8,067||8,094||7,504|
|Hours worked per PRW (hours)||544,||560||600||532||561||489||466|
|Wages paid ($1,000)||138,241||148,363||156,283||156,085||168,440||154,652||153,888|
|Hourly wages (dollars per hour)||$16,41||$16,51||$15.89||$18.67||$18.78||$19.22||$20.51|
|Productivity (pounds per hour)||29.8||32.2||28.3||33.1||35.8||34.3||33.3|
|Unit labor costs (dollars per pound)||$0.55||$0.51||$0.56||$0.56||$0.52||$0.56||$0.62|
USITC Table III-18 reported that direct labor costs were 30 percent of the average grower revenue of $1.70 a pound for both fresh and frozen blueberries. Total hand labor costs including payroll taxes and supervision were $0.75 to $1 a pound. Machine harvesting costs were $0.20 a pound.
The USITC reported that 80 percent of California’s blueberries were hand harvested, and that pack out rates were 80 to 86 percent. Most Florida blueberries are hand-picked, but half of Georgia blueberries are machine picked. Some Georgia growers plant varieties that ripen uniformly to facilitate the use of harvesting machines.
Workers harvesting blueberries
Blueberries used for processing are more amenable to machine harvesting, since the grower price is lower at $0.50 to $1 a pound and processors are less concerned about internal damage to berries that are processed or frozen soon after harvest. At least six firms produce harvesting machines that cost $200,000 to $300,000. Some growers hand harvest during the first pass through the field, when 50 to 60 percent of the crop is mature and grower prices are highest, and use machines for a second and final harvest.
H-2A, Unions, Ghosts. Many growers employ H-2A guest workers to hand pick blueberries. Washington’s Zirkle Fruit was certified in 2019 to employ 2,750 H-2A workers to harvest its 850 acres of blueberries for a piece rate of $0.50 a pound; all workers were guaranteed the $15.03 AEWR minimum wage. During the harvest, the WA Employment Security Department found the prevailing wage to be $0.75 a pound, and DOL required Zirkle to pay the higher piece rate.
Zirkle sued, and a federal judge eventually ordered Zirkle to pay the extra $0.25 a pound after concluding that ESD’s prevailing wage rate survey finding was sound. Zirkle said that it would machine pick its blueberries if it had to pay $0.75 a pound for hand-picking.
Few berry workers are represented by unions, but workers at Klein Management (Gourmet Trading) in McFarland, California voted 347 to 68 for UFW representation in May 2016 after a brief strike. The mostly Oaxacan workers complained that Klein reduced the piece rate from $0.95 a pound at the beginning of the season when there were fewer berries to pick to $0.70 a pound as yields increased. The UFW-Klein contract offered $0.68 a pound for picking blueberries during the 2020 harvest, and the contract promised to renegotiate the piece rate before the 2021 harvest.
Other labor issues in blueberry farming involve child labor and ghost workers, cases of two workers employed under one social security number. Pan-American Berry Growers of Salem OR in 2012 had 280 pickers to harvest 165 acres of blueberries, and B&G Ditchen Farms of Silverton had 310 workers for 150 acres, an average of two workers per acre. FLCs supplied workers to both farms, and the workers were paid piece-rate wages.
DOL investigators found that some workers on these farms had very high piece rate earnings and assumed that the berries picked by two or more workers were credited to one worker. DOL found it implausible that workers would pick more than 68 pounds of blueberries an hour which, at piece rate of $0.50 a pound, would yield earnings of $34 an hour. DOL threatened to place a hot-goods hold on both farms’ berries so that they could not be shipped across state lines unless the growers agreed to pay $200,000 in back wages and $30,000 in civil money penalties for having child and ghost employees.
The growers disputed the presence of child and ghost employees, and asked DOL if they could put the back wages and CMPs into an escrow account, ship their berries, and appeal DOL’s findings. DOL refused, so the farms paid, shipped their berries, and sued DOL in August 2013 to recoup what they had paid, arguing that they were forced to agree with DOL findings with which they disagreed. A federal magistrate agreed with the berry growers that DOL "unfairly stacked the deck" against them threatening a hot-goods hold unless they signed the consent decree, and a federal district judge invalidated the grower-DOL settlements in April 2014.
Trade. The US produced 670 million pounds of blueberries in 2019, including 56 percent that were sold fresh and 44 percent that were processed. The US is a net importer of blueberries, importing 470 million pounds of fresh blueberries in 2019 and exporting 80 million pounds, providing Americans with a billion pounds of blueberries a year.
Americans consumed less than 0.2 pounds of fresh blueberries per person in 1980, and over two pounds per person in recent years, a ten-fold increase. Consumption is expected to increase as fresh blueberries become available year-round at lower retail prices.
Almost all fresh blueberries available to Americans are imported between October and February from Peru, Chile, and Mexico, as are a third of US fresh blueberries available between March and September, when most imports are from British Columbia, Canada. The US imported 310,000 tons of blueberries in 2021 worth $1.9 billion, including 105,000 tons worth $670 million from Peru.
Imports of fresh blueberries from South America peak during winter months
Source: USITC II-4
North American (Canada and US) blueberry acreage has been shrinking while acreage in South America and Mexico has been increasing, so that in 2020 there were about 53,000 hectares of blueberries in North America and 44,000 hectares of blueberries in South America and Mexico. Almost all of the South American and Mexican production is for fresh market exports. In 2020, two-thirds of fresh blueberries produced in the Americas were from South America and Mexico.
South America and Mexico produced 2/3 of the fresh blueberries in the Americas in 2020
Most US blueberries (and avocados) are imported
Rising imports of fresh blueberries prompted complaints of unfair competition from US producers in southeastern states who compete with imports during the spring months. The American Blueberry Growers Alliance requested an investigation of blueberry imports from the US International Trade Commission, and hoped that the USITC would find adverse effects from imports on US growers that could lead to seasonal tariffs on fresh blueberry imports.
The Blueberry Coalition for Progress and Health, which includes many US growers with operations abroad and importers, opposed this request seasonal tariffs. The USITC agreed with the Coalition in February 2021, finding that lower prices for southeastern blueberry growers were due as much to rising US production as to rising imports.
Outlook. At least six firms manufacture blueberry harvesters, including Oxbo International, Littau, Haven, Ag Harvesters, A&B Packing, and Blueline. All except Haven use rotary picking mechanisms with fingers that dislodge the blueberries and allow them to fall into a catching area, where a conveyor belt transports them to bins or lugs. By padding the catching area, damage to machine-harvested berries is reduced, but still exceeds the damage done to berries via hand-harvesting. New blueberry varieties produce fruit that does not bruise as easily when harvested by machine.
Padding the catching areas on machines reduces damage to blueberries
Berries damaged by machines can be sorted efficiently in packing sheds, so growers deciding whether to hand or machine harvest must compare the lower harvesting costs with machines against their lower pack out rates. The cost of machine harvesting does not vary with yield, while the cost of hand-harvesting rises with higher yields since workers are paid per pound. Most blueberries in New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington are harvested by machine.
Over the next decade, there is likely to be more use of machines to harvest fresh-market blueberries, more reliance on H-2A workers to pick fresh and especially organic fresh berries, and more competition from fresh berry imports that reduce US grower prices at the beginning and end of the season. Researchers and machinery manufacturers are developing new varieties and improving harvesting machines, while some US growers are seeking protection from imports.
International Blueberry Organization. 2021. Global State of the Blueberry Industry Report 2021.