250,000 pounds of blueberries: MidAmerica may become fruit hub for Asia

News-DemocratDecember 12, 2013 

North Bay Produce received its largest shipment ever in a single day when 250,000 pounds of blueberries from South America were delivered this week to MidAmerica St. Louis Airport.

The blueberries were flown into the Mascoutah-based airport from Santiago, Chile, on two 747 cargo planes on Monday.

North Bay President Mark Girardin valued the blueberries at $1.3 million.

This shipment is more than double the past record shipment of 120,000 pounds of produce, according to Girardin. North Bay is planning to fly another 160,000 pounds of fruit into the St. Clair County-owned airport this weekend.

North Bay processes and distributes produce from its facility at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport. Girardin said these blueberries arrived in time for retail Christmas promotions throughout the United States and Canada.

"This is a positive all the nearby communities are looking for," Girardin said. "MidAmerica is starting to grow. Rome wasn't built in a day. It takes time to build and develop programs. Nothing is easy in life and this is one of those things in life."

Girardin added he was thankful to county officials for helping the company as "we incrementally grow the business one step at a time."

The long-term goal is to cut shipping costs by filling the returning flights with goods from the U.S., Girardin said. For example, other companies could ship pharmaceuticals.

The larger shipment of produce takes advantage of the recently completed expansion at its refrigerated warehouse at MidAmerica. The expansion is key to North Bay's plans to reach a 500-store food chain in China through MidAmerica.

North Bay does not have regularly scheduled flights as the delivery of produce is based on what is in season.

The facility expanded from 36,000 square feet to 53,000 square feet. The expansion allowed the company to grow from 32 to 80 employees at MidAmerica.

The expansion was initially funded through bonds issued by St. Clair County. North Bay is repaying the cost of the bonds through its lease agreement with the county.

"We are building jobs down there," Girardin said. "We have created relationships with transportation and packaging companies. We are putting business in that county that wasn't there before. A good number of people are happy to have a salary and insurance they didn't have before."

North Bay is targeting the Asian market through MidAmerica's partnership with Ningbo Lishe International Airport in China. County officials have been working to establish MidAmerica as a cargo hub in a trade route between Latin America and Ningbo.

"Part of the whole plan is to expand that route through Asia," Girardin said. "Obviously, it's not done yet. It's part of a five-year plan."

North Bay has shared the company's architectural drawings of the MidAmerica facility with airport officials in Ningbo to help Chinese architects build a compatible refrigerated warehouse.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said in a statement the county was "extremely pleased" to partner with North Bay as the company reaches world markets on flights into and out of MidAmerica.

"This is another great step for North Bay Produce and we heartily support their business efforts," Kern said. "Their new and growing workforce are a pleasure to have in our community. Their influence at the airport and the region grows daily."

North Bay also has received ground shipments at MidAmerica since July 2012 from around the U.S., British Columbia and Mexico. North Bay began operations at the airport in June 2012.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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