FOLSOM, CALIF. - Blueberry industry members were honored during the United States High Blueberry Council’s virtual conference and expo that wrapped up on Oct. 1. 

The awards were created to honor achievements throughout the industry, from the field to the consumer and every link in between. The winners, nominated by their peers, collectively represent an astounding amount of knowledge and achievement in the industry, according to the group.  

“Our 20th Anniversary Awards are an opportunity to celebrate the incredible, hardworking, innovative people across the entire blueberry supply chain,” said Kasey Cronquist, president of USHBC. “While everyone has contributed in some way to growing the blueberry industry, our recipients deserve special recognition for their efforts over the last two decades. Their work has made a lasting impact, well positioning our industry for continued improvement, collaboration, and success for the next 20 years and beyond.” 

The 11 recipients were: 

Grower Innovation, Production: Rod Cook, president of Ag-View Consulting and chairman of the USHBC Technology and Innovation Committee.  

Cook is committed to keeping growers up to date on what technology can do for them. His many accomplishments include directing the committee’s work on a sensor that has improved the handling of mechanically harvested blueberries. He also created the Technology Symposium, which attracts growers from around the world to get the latest on innovations. He has acted as a liaison between blueberry growers and technology firms and university researchers in efforts to improve all aspects of growing and harvesting. He has also been an advocate for podcasts and webinars that keep a pipeline of information open between technological advances and the field.  

Grower Innovation, Sustainability: Tom Avinelis, Agriculture Capital 

Sustainability and stewardship have been the hallmark of Avinelis’s career that has spanned four decades. He is the co-founder of Agriculture Capital where he works to bring institutional capital to build sustainable agriculture and longtime stewardship of the land. Agriculture Capital is one of the largest organic blueberry growers in the US and operates blueberry packing and frozen processing facilities. At Agriculture Capital, Avinelis’s focus on stewardship has had a big cumulative environmental impact. His company has focused on restoring biodiversity and increasing wild pollinator colonies, which has provided cost savings, increased crop volumes, created more resilient plants, and fostered even more delightful fruit flavor and quality.  

Grower Innovation, Good Practices: Mike Makara, former chair, British Columbia Blueberry Council 

Makara has been involved in blueberries since childhood, having grown up on his family’s blueberry farm in Canada. After selling the family farm in 1991 to a company in eastern Canada, he continued as manager of the ever-expanding operation, which eventually grew to 200 acres. During this period, he was one of the founding shareholders of Berryhill Foods. After Berryhill Foods was sold, Mike started his own farm, which grew to 40 acres. Later, Makara became very involved in consulting for other blueberry growers and the British Columbia Blueberries Council Research Committee. 

Grower Innovation, Community Involvement and Outreach: Lorrie Merker, MBG Marketing 

Merker has been an important part of the blueberry industry for three decades. As vice president of grower relations, cooperative affairs and social responsibility for MBG Marketing, she knows the organization from top to bottom, from the intricacies of its finances to its core values and mission. In 2014, Lorrie organized the Young Cooperator leadership program to train the next generation of blueberry growers. It has now graduated two classes of next-generation farmers, and is in the middle of running its third class. She has also been involved in advocacy at the state and national levels to promote an understanding of the labor and environmental challenges facing farmers. 

Marketing and Promotions: Kirk McCreary, former chair of the USHBC Promotion Committee and former MBG Marketing CEO 

McCreary has played important roles at pivotal times to elevate blueberries, promote growth and help growers flourish. As a past leader of the US Highbush Blueberry Council's promotion committee, he helped shape the public perception of blueberries that led to the fruit’s phenomenal growth. As the CEO of MBG Marketing from 1994 to 2006, he led MBG through a period of substantial growth and change, positioning the cooperative to continue as the industry leader in the years ahead. His influence was felt from the fields to the produce aisle.  

Food Manufacturing and Advances in Blueberry Products: Joe Meduri, Meduri World Delights 

Meduri wasn’t the first to infuse and dry blueberries, but his vision for the uses and opening of diverse markets made a huge impact in the product that consumers love and industrial users can’t get enough of. As the founder of Meduri Farms in Dallas, Ore., his efforts have been instrumental in popularizing dried blueberries. Meduri’s has built his company into an exporting powerhouse and an innovator of dried blueberry and other dried fruit products including sized bits used in industrial baking and cereal bars. 

Frozen Blueberry Products: John Shelford, Naturipe Farms 

Shelford has spent more than four decades in the blueberry business. He has excelled in every aspect of the industry since joining Michigan Blueberry Growers Association in 1976 as assistant manager. He became general manager and vice president of the association in 1983. In the mid-1980s, he led the change to packing and selling frozen blueberries in lieu of raw process. He also led MBG into understanding the need for individually quick-frozen fruit in the marketplace and engaged MBG in IQF fruit processing as far back as 1990. Shelford is a strategic adviser to Naturipe and acts as a consultant in several other areas of the fruit industry, especially in analyzing and reporting on trends in frozen blueberry marketing and cold storage reporting. 

Export and Global Community Relations: Bryan Sakuma, Sakuma Brothers Holding Company 

Sakuma is a third-generation berry grower in Washington State. He started working at Sakuma Brother Farms in 1989 and was the lead nursery salesperson for the Pacific Northwest for Norcal Nursery, Inc. Eventually, he became president of Sakuma Brothers Processing where he managed both the fresh market and processing facilities. During this time, he was involved in developing the frozen sales business in Japan. Since 2016, he has been the vice president of sales and marketing for Sakuma Brothers Holding Company. His primary focus is frozen and fresh markets sales.  

Merchandising/Retail: Darrell Piliego, Publix Super Markets 

Piliego is responsible for floral, snacks, melons, berries, citrus and mushrooms at Publix Super Markets Inc. where he’s been a category manager since 2016. He previously worked as a buyer for the produce and floral division. Each summer, Publix holds a promotion called “Berry Bash,” and he is the man behind this effort that includes advertising, in-store collateral and a social media campaign. Piliego said the promotion is designed to let customers know that berries are at their peak in flavor and quality in the summer months — something he said happens thanks to growers and partners who provide Publix high-quality, flavorful berries year after year. 

Foodservice: Andrew Hunter, Chef Andrew Culinary Development 

As a culinary consultant for USHBC from 2014 to 2019, Hunter worked to expand public perceptions of blueberry uses beyond pies and smoothies. Some of his ideas: blueberry vinegar, pickled blueberries and powdered blueberries in salt and meat rubs. He is considered one of the country’s leading research and development chefs. As USHBC’s culinary consultant, he promoted blueberries as a way for restaurants to differentiate their menus. He showed that blueberries can be used across the menu, from drinks and salads to entrees and dessert.  

Genetic Research and Breeding with Nursery Propagation: David Brazelton, Fall Creek Nursery 

Fall Creek Nursery has long been at the forefront of propagating and supplying top-quality blueberry material to growers around the world and Fall Creek founder Dave Brazelton has been the force that has fueled the nursery’s ascent. Over four decades, it has grown into an international presence with locations in Mexico, Chile, Peru, Spain, the Netherlands and South Africa. And that success has come about because of Brazelton’s dedication to a better blueberry. His contribution has not only been in the area of nursery stock but by helping growers understand how to grow them with attention to the marketplace.  

A recording of the awards celebration, including acceptance comments from each of the award recipients, can be viewed online here