Fresh B.C. blueberries will be on their way to Asia if the government's new marketing program bears fruit.

Debbie Etsell, executive director of B.C. Blueberries, said Friday that the sweet, health-giving fruit has huge export potential to countries such as India and China.

"This is a big announcement for the B.C. agricultural industry. We have one of the biggest food sectors in the country," she said.

Federal and provincial officials in Vancouver announced a joint program to provide $4.3 million in "seed" money.

The funds will help food producers make contacts at trade shows and overseas missions.

Etsell has been promoting blueberries for a few years, most recently on a provincial trade mission to India, where the fruit is mostly unknown.

"They look at a blueberry and think it's an alien. They have never seen it before and are afraid to taste it," she said. "When they bite it, their first word is 'sweet.'" While Indians are just getting a taste, Etsell said many people from neighbouring Punjab, Pakistan, have emigrated to Canada - and now make up 80 per cent of the province's 800 blueberry growers.

Growing conditions here are nearly perfect, she said.

B.C. blueberry farmers produce 55 million kilograms annually, which Etsell said is B.C.'s third largest food export.

Blueberries started booming locally in 2004 after studies revealed beneficial health effects, including antioxidant qualities.

"I don't think people realize how healthy they are," she said. "We call them nature's candy."

She said Asian markets are ripe for the picking, but trade barriers have been slow to come down. China currently allows frozen blueberries to be imported but not fresh ones; India allows both but sales need to be developed.

Dave Eto, chair of the B.C. Food Producers Association, said the story is not all about blueberries: B.C. has $2.5 billion worth of agricultural exports. He said that includes cherries, apples, fresh milk, baked goods and packaged goods such as cereals, jams and crackers.

"Exporting starts with trade missions and making contacts. The challenge is getting from making introductions to serving billions of people," he said.

Government ministers are hoping it will be the start of something big.

Andrew Wilkinson, B.C.'s Minister of Technology, said the Chinese market is growing by 20 per cent a year.

"Air traffic means we can move fresh B.C. fruit to Asia at a premium price," he said.

kspencer@theprovince.com twitter.com/kentspencer2

 

berries, Asia, exports