KANSAS CITY - Berries continue to be one of the most successful, fastest-growing categories in grocery fresh produce departments nationwide, and suppliers are meeting the demand with new varieties — and new ways of marketing and even growing old favorites.

In 2020 Vancouver, B.C.-based Oppy added Fair Trade Certified Peruvian blueberries, packed under the Ocean Spray label, to its berry product roster.

Jason Fung, Oppy’s vice president of categories, berries and greenhouse, said reception to the new deal has been “incredible.”

“It shows the true potential for produce that is grown sustainably and in a socially responsible manner,” Fung said. “ Last year we’ve had more sales of Fair Trade blueberries than we have ever had before, generating premiums that help farmworker communities by funding many essential projects and services.”

Oppy expects momentum for the program to continue to build in 2021, with plans to expand in the near future.

Oppy continues to be an industry leader in Fair Trade Certified produce across its diverse categories, including greenhouse and table grapes, and the company is currently exploring other products as well.

“We’ve been a Fair Trade partner since 2004 and have generated over $4.4 million in premiums since 2013 alone, with every year seeing our Fair Trade sales increase as consumers increasingly seek out products that have a positive environmental and social impact,” Fung said.

Another berry Oppy began shipping in 2020, the Haskap, has seen similarly strong results, Fung said.

“Oppy has seen an incredibly overwhelming response from the industry, other growers, the trade press and retailers,” he said. “The interest and excitement that Haskap berries has received was truly above and beyond. Especially for a niche product, the response was very open and receptive, with everyone looking to learn more about this unique and fun berry.”

Fung said it’s likely a combination of novelty and flavor that has generated so much interested in the Haskap in the industry. With a sweet, tangy taste, Haskap berries have a flavor profile that combines elements of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, he said. Haskap berries are also especially well suited as a snack for children, thanks to their size and flavor, which offers a tangy finish reminiscent of candy.

Look for bigger volumes of Haskaps in 2021, Fung said.

Oppy’s berry program continues to expand in all of the company’s major growing regions. Oppy is also focusing on varietal development with new products (such as the Haskap), as well as introducing new opportunities to promote berries for our retail partners.

The company is also trialing various technologies — an effort led by Garland Perkins,  Oppy’s senior manager for insights and innovation — that Fung said have huge potential to transform the category.

“There is an entire world of precision agriculture, for example, that focuses on trying to maximize outputs and meticulously measure inputs, he said. “We’re looking at different ways we can grow berries in every sense, whether that means a better environmental footprint, or increasing quantifiable metrics such as quality, yield, as well as automation at various points in our supply chain.”

Oppy expects berry volume increases across the board, with more acres planned and more plants that continue to mature. “We have more production capacity than we’ve ever had before and so we expect volume growth across our entire program.”

Looking at upcoming spring berry deals, Fung said timing should be normal, with winter growing weather favorable thus far.

“Although we’re entering a period of time where weather can be unpredictable, especially in California, overall climate conditions have been good for growing great fruit,” he said.

In South America, meanwhile, growing operations, the weather has fluctuated, pushing the crop back slightly, especially taking into consideration the impact of La Niña.

Consumer demand for fresh berries at grocery retail is robust and continues to grow annually, Fung said. Even during COVID-19, Oppy is seeing great demand across all of its categories.

“The drivers are multifaceted and include more people eating at home as restrictions are reintroduced or extended across geographies,” he said. “We’re also seeing shoppers take more frequent trips but with smaller baskets, which helps with the consumption of highly perishable items like berries.”

The supply side is also driving category growth, especially as Oppy offers year-round availability for a number of products, he added. That means that shoppers now have access to top-quality berries at times of the year when they may not have been able to purchase them previously, such as Peruvian berries during the winter.

When it comes to merchandising berries at retail, placement in the store is crucial to exceptional sales. When berries are displayed up front, with big bold displays that catch consumers’ fleeting attention, sales go up, Fung said.

Oppy also offers retailers a large number of POS and other marketing materials that can help them reap these benefits as well.

“Coupled with larger packs, we can really help drive significant volume through system and subsequently sales dollars,” Fung said. “It’s definitely a winning combination when done at the right time of the year.”

Plenty to grow Driscoll’s strawberries indoors year-round

South San Francisco, Calif.-based agriculture technology specialist Plenty Unlimited Inc. will use a $140 million infusion of investor cash in part to grow Driscoll’s strawberries year-round in indoor vertical farms.

Driscoll’s and Softbank Vision Fund 1 are among the leading investors in the company, which recently announced commercial collaborations with Albertsons and Driscoll’s. To date, Plenty has raised over $500 million.

“In just 30 years time, the world will need 70% more food than we currently produce, requiring more efficient use of land and water,” said Jeff Housenbold, managing partner at Softbank Investment Advisers. “Without innovation in agriculture, this demand will be impossible to meet. We believe Plenty is transforming the way food is made and are pleased to continue supporting their mission to build sustainable, intelligent farms that deliver healthy, safe produce with a focus on premium flavor.”

“We looked at other vertical farms, and Plenty’s technology was one of the most compelling systems we’d seen for growing berries,” said J. Miles Reiter, Driscoll’s Chairman and CEO. “We got to know Plenty while working on a joint development agreement to grow strawberries. We were so impressed with their technology, we decided to invest.”

Plenty’s farm delivers produce year-round that tastes like it was picked fresh from the garden, according to the company. Using data analytics, machine learning and customized lighting, Plenty is able to iterate at unprecedented speed, leveraging the more than 200 years’ worth of growing data the platform generates annually. This advanced agri-food platform has allowed Plenty to show over 700% yield improvement in leafy greens in the last 24 months, while maintaining its unique flavor and quality.

Plenty’s vertical design produces up to 400 times the yield of traditional field farming, producing more food with less water and land. The South San Francisco Plenty farm uses 100% renewable energy. Plenty’s vertical design can grow 1,500 acres in a building the size of a big box grocery store while saving over a million gallons of water per week, according to the company.

Plenty is currently building the world's highest-output, vertical, indoor farm in Compton, Calif.

Blueberries join the emoji ranks

Blueberries have joined a select list for fruits and vegetables: they’re now an official emoji.

To get the blueberry emoji, all you have to do is run the latest software update on your device and it will appear on your emoji keyboard next to the other fruit emoji in the food section.

“It will help create awareness and those important reminders of the unique attributes of blueberries,” said Jennifer Sparks, USHBC’s vice president of marketing and communications for the Folsom, Calif.-based US Highbush Blueberry Council. “Consumers will enjoy using the new emoji to add to their shopping lists and create context and a pop of color in their texts and social media posts. 

Because the new emoji benefits the entire industry, USHBC encourages all industry participants to get active and involved in spreading the news, Sparks said. The emoji offers a number of ways to enhance marketing, communications and promotional initiatives for your business or operation. To make it easy – both in digital media and in print – USHBC created a Blueberry Emoji Toolkit, including:

  • How-to instructions for emoji best practices.
  • Pre-designed, pre-written social posts.
  • Downloadable, high-res emoji files for promotions.