Many creatures, large and small, feast at the vast dinner table of Alaskan wild berries. Our indigenous Alaska blueberries are naturally delicious, nutritious, aromatic, low in calories, tangy, luscious to the taste buds, and can be enjoyed in any form from morning to night.
The Alaska Division of Agriculture provided funding to the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, University of Alaska Fairbanks to determine the size and characteristics of the in-state, non-restaurant market for blueberries. A consumer telephone survey was conducted using 66 randomly selected households in Anchorage and 33 in Fairbanks. Major grocery stores in Fairbanks and Anchorage as well as individual berry processors were surveyed or interviewed.
The consumer survey contained questions asking for shopping habits, product preferences and whether or not they, picked their own berries. Most urban Alaskans shop for fresh berries at Alaskan supermarket chains (66%). Twenty percent purchased berries at national supermarket chains, Many respondents (41%) picked their own blueberries and purchased none. Still others (21%) did not purchase blueberries because they disliked them. Processed blueberry products were purchased by 50% of the households. Only 39% of those surveyed purchased berry gift packages. Aggressive marketing through typical outlets visited by tourists such as concessions, gift shops and variety stores would most likely amplify sales of berry products.
Labels were compared when purchasing processed products by 63% of survey participants. This is higher than the national average and will most likely be an important factor in marketing Alaska products particularly since survey respondents indicated a willingness to purchase Alaskan blueberry products. Thirty-three percent of respondents would purchase Alaska blueberry jams and jellies frequently and 26% would purchase them occasionally. Alaskan blueberry ice cream would be purchased frequently by 14% of survey respondents, and 37% indicated they would purchase it occasionally. Twenty-one percent felt they would purchase Alaska frozen blueberries frequently, and 24%, occasionally Canned Alaskan blueberries were the least favored with 45% saying they would never purchase this item.
Blueberries are a part of a small cottage industry that processes berry products in the State. The volume of fresh Alaska wild blueberries sold to Alaskan processors in 1989 was approximately. 20,000 lbs. Survey results indicate that berry processors face a demand that is nearly twice the current supply. Products produced include chutney, jelly, jam, low-sugar spread, syrup, confections, tea and ice cream. The current market appears strong for any product that capitalizes on the mistique of Alaska. All retail store respondents indicated a willingness to purchase the Alaskan blueberry products such as ice cream, jams, jellies, frozen and canned blueberries if a quality, competitively-priced product was offered with attractive packaging.
Survey results indicate the estimated volume of imported blueberries sold in retail stores in Anchorage at 132,300 lbs of fresh and 51,904 lbs of frozen blueberries in 1989. Fairbanks retail stores estimated sales in 1989 of 13,014 lbs of fresh and 10,050 lbs of frozen blueberries. Presently none of the blueberries sold in retail stores is from Alaska sources. Future purchases could amount to 198,000 lb of fresh blueberries annually, and it is projected that Alaska blueberries could capture at least half of that market.
Enhancement of native stands followed by cultivation of the Alaskan wild blueberry on a small scale to increase availability are ways to increase production and markets. This approach is similar to that taken to develop the Maine blueberry industry, allowing processors and packers to gradually expand into new markets or obtain a larger share of existing markets, it would also allow production and markets to grow symbiotically. A research program to provide production information is a necessity. Aggressive marketing programs for Alaskan blueberries could expand existing markets and provide income for Alaskans, resulting in a step toward making Alaska a distinctive berry State. In both the fresh and processed markets, high, consistent quality and competitive pricing will be necessary for success.
Editors Note: Christine Johnson is an undergraduate student in the Natural Resources Management Program, UAF. The information in the article is a summary from a report submitted to the Alaska Division of Agriculture in 1990 by C.E. Lewis, R.B. Swanson and C. Johnson