Linda F. Benedict, Hinson, Roger A.
Sandamali K. Rodrigo and Roger A. Hinson
Blueberry consumption in the United States is expanding as the result of promotion efforts that emphasize flavor, versatility and nutritional value. Blueberries contribute to a healthy diet from nutrients that include copper, selenium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B, C, E and K. They also contain antioxidants such as anthocyanins and polyphenolic flavonoids, which may have the potential to prevent cancer and boost the immune system.
Nationally, blueberry acreage has almost doubled over the past 10 years, and use has doubled to more than 550 million pounds. In that same period in Louisiana, the blueberry industry’s value to the state’s economy increased from about $1 million to more than $6 million.
Blueberry growers in Louisiana typically operate small or mid-size farms and frequently struggle with selling the crop. Their marketing options often reach small customer bases. Online marketing offers new opportunities. Web and social media use are expanding as smartphones and other electronic devices such as tablets offer an alternative connection to consumers. In Louisiana, online marketing is hampered by lack of high-speed access to the Internet. When this is addressed, online activities can improve competitiveness.
To learn about blueberry growers’ online marketing activities, data were collected from Louisiana specialty crop farmers in 2011. An online survey was sent to 460 email addresses received from Louisiana MarketMaker, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Louisiana Vegetable Growers Association and LSU AgCenter specialists. Completed responses were received from133 growers for a response rate of 29 percent. Blueberry sales were reported by 23 respondents. The 2011 Louisiana Ag Summary estimated the number of blueberry growers in Louisiana at 76, so the response rate was almost one-third of the blueberry-grower population. This is the basis for reporting of demographics, selling options and Internet use.
Questions about familiarity with a website, All About Blueberries, were included in the survey. All About Blueberries is a website developed at the LSU AgCenter and hosted by eXtension.org, which helps blueberry growers learn about production practices, find solutions to problems, network with peers and professionals, get expert assistance and join a discussion section.
Of the respondents who reported blueberry sales, nearly 73 percent were male, 91 percent were married, and 91 percent were white. About 41 percent were in the 55-to-64 age group. They were relatively well-educated; the groups with the highest education levels were those with some college (32 percent) and those having a bachelor’s degree (32 percent).
Blueberry growers reported an average of 16 acres of owned land and an average farm size of approximately 23 acres. An average of 97 percent of farm sales were from blueberries. About 85 percent had sales of less than $50,000. A majority (85 percent) was classified as either retirement or residential (farm operators whose primary occupation was nonfarm) farms (Figure 1). Similarly, most operators (53 percent) said they worked off the farm full-time, while 29 percent were full-time farmers.
Finding the most appropriate markets is important to business success. Direct-to-consumer selling was most popular. These direct options included on-farm sales such as roadside stands or pick-your-own (used by 50 percent of growers), public farmers markets (17 percent) and restaurants (9 percent) (Figure 2). Local grocers were an option used by about 17 percent of growers, about 9 percent had restaurant customers and 9 percent sold to wholesalers. In terms of effectiveness, blueberry growers rated on-farm sales as most effective (90 percent). Public farmers markets had an effectiveness rating above 70 percent, and restaurants and the Internet each had an effectiveness rating of about 60 percent (Figure 3).
Use of the Web and social media to promote farm products and locate buyers is a relatively new approach that offers access to many more potential customers. All blueberry growers surveyed had access to the Internet, but only 73 percent indicated they used it in the farm operation. They were asked about tasks such as communicating, word processing, preparing financial statements, record keeping, online banking and online marketing. None of these was used with high frequency (Figure 4).
The major barrier to Internet use was inadequate speed of service. This was consistent with other studies of Internet use in rural Louisiana. Of farmers who used the Internet weekly, 53 percent collected information, record keeping was an activity for 33 percent, and 29 percent used it for communication. In terms of perceived usefulness, social communication and promoting the business and its products were identified as most useful Internet applications. Improved business practices and entertainment were rated as somewhat less useful.
For social media, 50 percent of respondents used Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube and Flickr. Entertainment was identified as the most useful (36 percent), while social communication (33 percent) and promoting the business and products (33 percent) were also rated as useful. About 36 percent of growers used smartphones in the business, and almost 75 percent frequently used Facebook.
Some growers (13 percent) used the All About Blueberries website for communication (for example, seeking answers to production questions) and as a business tool, but most growers were either not aware of or were not familiar with the site. Of those who used All About Blueberries, the site was rated as effective by about 38 percent of respondents (Figure 5). This outcome may have been influenced by the short time between the launch of the All About Blueberries site and the time the survey was conducted, which was about a year. Content was not fully developed and the site had been given little publicity.
In general, Louisiana blueberry growers used traditional and mostly on-farm selling options for their crop. A minority used online tools, social media and the All About Blueberries website in support of the business. Additional research will be needed to assess changes in how growers integrate these technologies into their businesses.
Sandamali K. Rodrigo is an extension associate, and Roger A. Hinson is a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness.
(This article was published in the summer 2013 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)