view current print edition




Northwest blueberry producers survive weather, anticipate good crops

by Lora Abcarian | June 23, 2010
Weather in the Pacific Northwest has been particularly finicky this blueberry season. But the bouts of warm weather in February, unseasonably cool spring weather and a mid-June warm-up have not deterred producers.

"Here in Oregon, we have a very good crop coming off," said Mike Klackle, fresh salesperson for Townsend Farms Inc. in Fairview, OR. Looking northward, Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt Growers Inc. in Wenatchee, WA, echoed a similar sentiment. "It looks as if we will have a good crop," he told The Produce News in mid-June. "We made it through the weather."

"We had abnormally warm temperatures in February that caused the trees to break dormancy," said Mr. Klackle. Conditions were especially abnormal when compared to weather patterns in the rest of the nation, he went on to say. Even as growers began to speculate that 2010 might be a record-breaking season, the weather turned again. "It's been nothing but nasty weather [since February]," Mr. Klackle said. "It's hard to attribute weather conditions. We had our first 80-degree day [on June 14]."

According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, 10 states - including Oregon and Washington - account for 97 percent of all domestic production. Oregon is the nation's third-largest blueberry producer, followed by fourth- place Washington. The region is known for its high-quality berries ranging from early to late varieties.

Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Blueberry Commission, characterized most of June as cool and wet. Growing regions suffered poor pollination and some fruit rot, and he expects Washington's overall blueberry volume to be approximately 42 million pounds, a 4 million-pound increase from 2009. Three-quarters of the increase is expected to go to the fresh market.

Looking at Oregon, Mr. Klackle said that estimates are already calling for a record year, with approximately 55 million pounds entering the pipeline in 2010. This compares with 46 million pounds of blueberries produced last season.

Producers are meeting increased market demand with increased yields and plantings. Mr. Pepperl told The Produce News, "Our numbers will grow mostly with maturity of our plantings. Our acreage is not expanding, but our crop size is growing."

Bobby Stokes, part of the marketing team at Curry & Co., said that the company is working through its plans to increase both the size of its grower network and land dedicated to blueberry production. "We are in continued planned growth at Curry," he told The Produce News. Both acreage in blueberry production and product volume are expected to increase by 30 percent in 2010 for the company.

Consumers are increasingly making associations between blueberry consumption and its positive contributions to healthy lifestyles. Mr. Pepperl sees this as good news. "[Blueberries] are profitable, and now that production per acre is hitting us in a big way, you are seeing a much more profitable picture. Demand is high for our high-quality and very large-sized blueberries."

Blueberry popularity has growers looking at ways to extend their marketing windows. "We have been successful working together with growers, nurseries and industry leaders in making certain that our growers see the value of new, late-harvest varieties that consumers and our buyers demand," Mr. Stokes said.

He shared some of his predictions about the future of the blueberry industry. "In my opinion, flavor is going to be the next major dividing line for blueberries." Curry & Co. also imports blueberries from Chile. "[In early June], I spent two weeks traveling in Chile -- 1,400 miles by car -- visiting producers, packers and exporters," he told The Produce News. "The savvy growers here in the USA and in Chile all know one thing for certain: They will get return customers for the best-tasting variety. Any new plantings will be for quality and taste, not just for yield."

(For more on Northwest blueberries, see the June 28, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)