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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 29, 2007

Blueberry: the next Island crop?

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

The University of Hawai'i and the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested 60 blueberry plants in 2004-05 at the university's Mealani Research Station, which is 2,800 feet above sea level.

USDA/Agricultural Research Service, Pacific Basin

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Hawai'i is well-known for its blue skies and blue ocean, but not for its blueberries. That could change if a University of Hawai'i plan to plant 1,000 blueberry plants bears fruit.

The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, with help from the Hawaii Farm Bureau, plans to plant the plants this week in two plots at about 2,800 feet above sea level in Waimea on the Big Island. The fruits could come as soon as five months later.

Hawai'i's rich soil and perennial warm weather already make it an ideal location to grow many crops year-round. Agriculture officials hope the blueberry will be no different.

Early tests show the plants take to Hawai'i's soil. But it's unlikely the plants can be grown anywhere. High elevation and cool temperatures are crucial to the plants, which are generally grown in colder climates.

If researchers are successful in taming the blueberry, Hawai'i farmers could have one more high-value, niche product for local use and export.

Researchers want to discover production techniques and yields of 31 varieties of blueberries to assess the market potential of growing the fruit locally.

UH and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials already have successfully grown blueberries on a much smaller scale. A prior test involving 60 plants was conducted in 2004-05 on six varieties of blueberries at the university's Mealani Research Station, which is 2,800 feet above sea level. Yields ranged from 9 pounds to 22 pounds per 10 plants during the course of a year, depending on the variety of blueberry.

"The test plot was very interesting because it showed we might be able to produce it year-round," said Stewart Nakamoto, an extension economist at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. "But there's two big problems first there's the birds and the other is going to be the labor to harvest the thing."

The plants must be grown under netting to protect the fruit from birds. And like coffee beans, blueberries must be picked by hand.

In addition to their tasty flesh, blueberries are high in antioxidants, which some researchers think can offset the effects of aging. Demand for the fruit is red hot, Nakamoto said. It took state officials six months to secure a 1,000-plant shipment of plants varying in age from one to three years old.

Between 1995 and 2004, U.S. per-capita consumption of fresh blueberries rose from 0.3 pound to half a pound. At the same time, consumption of frozen blueberries fell from 0.47 pound in 1995 to 0.28 pound in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Financing for the blueberry projects comes from UH and a separate $70,000 grant from the Hawaii Farm Bureau. Hawai'i needs to find new, high-value niche products such as blueberries to remain competitive in a global market, said Alan Takemoto, the farm bureau's executive director.

"We can't just continue to grow the same type of plants," he said. "We're like any businesses that need to keep looking for new products."

Blueberries, which are a seasonal fruit, could be a good export product for Hawai'i, if they can be produced year-round.

However, "The first step is import replacement, then we can export it," Takemoto said. "I think that's the only way we can further grow our overall agriculture industry is through export."

Hawai'i currently imports the seasonal fruit. State officials don't track blueberry imports. However, if Hawai'i's 1.2 million residents each consumed a half-pound of blueberries annually, there would be a demand for 600,000 pounds of blueberries statewide. Blueberries can sell for about $20 a pound at local retailers.

"If the farmer does some direct marketing and gets a portion of that, it could be a pretty good return for them," Nakamoto said.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.