With their high content of phyto-nutrients, blueberries are firmly established in the daily menu of many living in developed countries, and now the “blue berry” is confidently winning the favour of Ukrainian consumers. In 10 years, the area under blueberry plantations in Ukraine has grown tenfold, from 200 to 2,000 hectares. Today, world markets are attracting Ukrainian berry growers, but the problem remains that the batches are too small for international orders.
Three farms found a smart solution that was unique for Ukraine. In February 2020, they announced the start-up of the first Ukrainian cooperative of blueberry producers, PAT Big Berry Coop, with the support of the International Trade Centre Project “Eastern Partnership: Ready to Trade – EU4Business Initiative,” together with the Ukrainian Berry Association. Currently, the co-op involves a total of 250 hectares, and this year its member companies have exported 38.4 t of berries to the United Arab Emirates.
The back-story of Ukrainian blueberries
“Since the 1990s, Ukraine has been developing exports of mostly wild blueberries picked in the woods,” says Iryna Kukhtina, President of the Ukrainian Berry Association, describing how the berry industry was formed. “But then the EU lifted the customs duties, and more farms in Ukraine began to grow blueberries for export. Blueberry bushes are quite demanding, so farmers began to take in commercial harvests only last year.”
Global quality requirements for blueberries are very strict: for one single batch, a farmer has to have 30-50 hectares of blueberry plantations of a single variety. A farm of 50 hectares with plantations of 5-7 varieties is considered large in the industry. So, how do the farmers gather so many berries?
“In order to develop international-market capacity, our farmers need to work as a team,” explains Maryna Sydorenko, the National Manager of the “Eastern Partnership: Ready to Trade – EU4Business Initiative” project. “This allows them to form commodity batches of quality berries. It’s a global trend already, as the market is globalizing.”
Merge and expand
The idea of establishing the first Ukrainian cooperative came from the owners of three berry farms: Oleh and Olena Vorobyov, owners of the Grass Avenue farm and the Starberries trademark, Oleh Naumenko, owner of the Berries farm and the BigBlue trademark, and Viktor Dytynko, owner of the BerryHills farm and the Dolyna Agro trademark.
“Our association is based on the friendly relationship that we have developed over several years of contact at the exhibitions and workshops under the Ready to Trade project,” explains Grass Avenue farm’s Olena Vorobyova.
The farms are located all over Ukraine, so prolonged rains or other adverse conditions can interfere. If this should cause problems, the cooperative lends a hand to other members and helps to meet the requirements of existing contracts.
“In Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, where the Berry Hills farm is located, 10 weeks of rain made it really difficult for us to collect quality berries,” says Oleksiy Prokopchyk, the co-op’s sales manager, about the cold and rainy 2020 season. “Meanwhile, in Kyiv and Zhytomyr Oblasts, where the plantations of the two other members of the cooperative are located, the weather was good, so everything went almost according to plan.”
From the start, co-op members have been sharing a sorting and packing warehouse. Co-op members bring their harvested berries to this facility for cooling, sorting, packaging, temporary storage, and shipment. Launched by the owners of Grass Avenue farm, the warehouse provides a professional “cold chain.”
“After harvesting and during the entire process of sorting and packaging, a cold temperature is maintained so that no condensation forms on the berries and they reaches the buyer in excellent condition,” explains Olena.
For the future and future members...
For the founders, the cooperative is an additional burden, because they are continually investing time and money for their own development and to search for common opportunities. At the same time, according to the co-owners, the terms of participation for future members of the cooperative are simple and clear: high quality berries, transparent accounting, and valid Global G.A.P. and Organic Standard certificates, if they are producing organic berries.
“We welcome our fellow farmers to join the cooperative,” say the owners of the Grass Avenue farm. “After all, the more we are, the better opportunities will open up for us to enter new markets—with more favourable contract terms both in price and shipment terms.”
The first victory in the global arena
During the Fruit Logistica 2020 exhibition in Germany, the Ukrainian farmers participated in a joint stand supported by the ITC Project “Eastern Partnership: Ready to Trade – EU4Business initiative,” together with the Ukrainian Berry Association. In just a few months, networking with partners from the United Arab Emirates resulted in trial batches of 700 kg and 1,500 kg of Ukrainian blueberries.
“We were confident in the quality of our berry, and in its taste, but you have to use all your diplomatic skills when dealing with East, so we were very worried whether our berries would taste good to Arab consumers,” says Olena, adding with obvious joy, “But the reviews were just incredible. ‘No one has ever supplied such a large, delicious, sweet berry.’”
The most difficult question was how to deliver the berry in the perfect condition. The solution came by protecting pallets of blueberries with special thermal covers that maintained a constant temperature of 2.0 to 2.5° C.
The best assessment is evident in photos from the cold shop windows of Dubai supermarkets: Ukrainian blueberries are almost sold out, while the berries of well-known international growers nearby are almost untouched.
“It was the best test for us,” says Olena. But it issued a second challenge—for us to keep in shape to continue to supply quality products. Because the principle of the cooperative is a ‘premium berry:’ large, sweet, and able to meet the requirements of the most demanding customer anywhere in the world.”