Possibly even healthier than the blueberry, although not nearly as popular, the blackberry is slowly gaining a following. However, concerted industry investment in market research and promotion, which would help its ascent, would not go amiss.
Blackberries Behind Blues and Reds
Berries are the uncontested success story of the ongoing superfruits trend. Science may still be divided when it comes to the merits of antioxidant extracts used to fortify all manner of food and beverage products, but the health-giving powers of whole berries are above reproach.
Where fruit, and in particular berries, is concerned, the darker the colour the better as this indicates a high level of phytochemicals, such as anthocyanins and anthocyanidins, which are believed to possess highly potent antioxidant activity.
Largely on account of this, blueberries continue to be a global phenomenon. Our fresh food data show that worldwide volumes of cranberries/blueberries rose by nearly one third (32%) over the 2007-2012 review period, compared to 13% for fresh fruits overall. In 2012, when fresh fruit volumes declined by 1%, cranberries/blueberries maintained a positive 4% growth trajectory.
Not all berries deserving of attention, however, are quite as adept as blueberries at garnering mainstream appeal. Blackberries, despite being on a par with blueberries in terms of health appeal, still lag way behind blueberries, which is somewhat surprising. The first reason one might think of to explain this disparity is that they are even more fragile than blueberries. However, the same is true for raspberries, and, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), raspberries rank as the third most popular fresh berry in the US, behind strawberries and blueberries. At present, 90% of blackberries sold in the US are frozen rather than fresh.
Cultivation Costlier than it Seems
There are a number of reasons why blackberries are finding it tough to catch up with the three dominant types of berries. For example, contrary to the initial impression one may get from seeing overgrown, seemingly indestructible and copiously fruiting brambles conquering even the most inhospitable urban wastelands, blackberries are, in fact, a fairly high maintenance crop.
Depending on the variety and climate/weather conditions, blackberry plants require extensive pruning, training, watering, fertilising, the application of pesticides and, in some instances, wind protection. And while raspberries will fruit 4-5 months from planting, blackberries will not produce any fruit in their first year.
However, blackberries’ horticultural characteristics are rather similar to those of raspberries, and, in most settings, their production costs are actually lower than those of raspberries, chiefly due to greater disease resistance and a longer lifespan. So, in reality, cultivation issues pose no great obstacle.
Lack of Organisation, Lack of Consumer Knowledge
The primary reason why blackberries are still so comparatively sparsely represented on retailers’ shelves is that they lack strong producer organisation backing, like that enjoyed by other more successful berries, including cranberries.
Only a few years ago, the North American Raspberry & Blackberry Association (NARBA) put its weight behind establishing a Blackberry Research and Promotion Programme, but, owing to ‘political reasons’, the effort folded in early 2012. This is a great shame as the berries will continue to miss out on the organised large-scale promotions and co-ordinated consumer education programmes which were so instrumental in propelling blueberries’ success.
There is still much to be learnt about consumers and their relationship with blackberries. In August 2013, Dutch market researcher PT Fruit and Vegetable Monitor (Productschap Tuinbouw) reported that in the Netherlands, blackberries were equally poplar among all age groups, while in Germany the bulk (30%) are consumed by the 25-34-year age group. Germans over 45 years of age eat very little of the fruit. In addition, in Germany, blackberries are a fairly popular breakfast food, while the Dutch prefer to enjoy them as a dessert.
Learning more about such national and regional consumption habits and preferences could help a great deal in optimising the marketing and promotion of blackberries, but without sustained industry backing, this remains pie in the sky for now.
Having said all that, things have not actually been going too badly for blackberries of late. According to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Research Center (AgMRC), a significant increase in production has been evident in recent years in the US. The organisation’s statistics show that in 2011, US blackberry production reached a value of US$43.2 million, up from US$30.8 million in 2009. It estimates that blackberry plantings in the US will increase by 20-33% between 2012 and 2015, and those of its major import markets, Mexico and Chile, by 117%, and Guatemala’s by up to 76%. Total blackberry acreage in these four countries is expected to approach 30,000 acres by 2015.
Expansion of blackberry cultivation across the globe has resolved the issue of seasonality. Scottish-based Angus Soft Fruits, for instance, sources its blackberries from Spain and the UK from April to October, while from November until March, Mexico, Argentina and Guatemala take over.
So, the nuts and bolts of the supply chain are in place and the fruit is laden with potential. The only thing blackberries are waiting for now is some more enthusiasm from the industry to stoke latent consumer demand.