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The Produce News had a chance to talk with a number of berry producers about the coming fall deal, and there is agreement that prospects are looking good going into the season. The growers also indicated that business continues to be driven among consumers by messages of healthfulness associated with berry consumption.

Ed Kelly, owner of Colleen Strawberries Inc., said volume this fall will be up compared to 2008. He said statewide production was down significantly last year, so an actual comparison is difficult. But he is optimistic about the coming crop. "We had a good bloom, and the berries are coming along," he said. All of the company's domestic berries are grown in Watsonville, CA.

Growing conditions along the Pacific shoreline are optimal for berry production. Larse Farms, the growing entity for Sweet Darling Sales, grows premium strawberries in acreage nestled on coastal bluffs adjacent to Sunset and Manresa State beaches. Sales Manager Bob Rigor said the natural environment of the area allows fruit to ripen at cooler-than-normal temperatures, thus extending product shelf life by two days. While sizing may be off slightly due to weather issues in 2009, Mr. Rigor said product quality will be high.

Heather Forshee, communications and public relations coordinator for Sunnyridge Farm, said the company will have good supplies of blueberries, blackberries and strawberries available this fall. Sunnyridge Farm grows product domestically and abroad. "[Weather] has been challenging with excess rains in all areas of domestic production," she said. "However, we were able to come through with a good crop and less damage than first suspected." Sunnyridge Farm also imports product during the fall. "Weather in import regions has been good thus far," Ms. Forshee said.

Red Blossom Sales will market strawberries and blackberries this fall. As Marketing Director Michelle Deleissegues noted, strawberries are the fastest- growing fruit item in the produce department as gauged by sales. The company will be marketing an increased volume of blackberries this fall, with availability beginning in November.

Although the domestic economy still has consumers edgy, producers have been gratified by overall berry sales. California Giant Berry Farms markets strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries during the fall, a time when consumers typically turn their attention to other fruit. Director of Marketing Cindy Jewell said volume has been increasing, and consumers are generally continuing to make berry purchases.

Consumers are keying into the healthful benefits of berry consumption. Ongoing scientific research shows that berries are nutritional powerhouses. "Fresh berries are bursting with flavor and powerful antioxidants," said Brian Bocock, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms. "They're ready to eat by the handful or to pop into recipes. In the current economy, consumers want value. Few products are able to provide as much nutrition as the berry does. Touted as a 'superfood,' berries are not only delicious, they're full of antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals. These benefits are frequently publicized by widespread media coverage, helping make the public well-informed shoppers. Berries have become so popular that they've overtaken apples as the No. 1 category in produce at the supermarket.

Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict Inc., agreed. In-house research helps the company commercialize the best-tasting berries and makes it easy for consumers to enjoy a product with superior taste and healthful properties.

Mr. Bocock said that companies like Naturipe Farms share an equal connection with their growing operations and the customers they service. "It's important our customers to know we are a company-owned by family farmers," he stated. "We are farmers first and foremost, and we like to take care of customers with great quality berries at a good value. Most of our growers define themselves less by commercial success and more by their passion for farming berries."

(For more on fall berries, see the Aug. 10 issue of The Produce News.)