Big blackberry crop meets with soft prices

07/27/2009 10:23:05 AM
Don Schrack

Members of the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association, Pittsboro, N.C., are producing heavy blackberry volume, thanks in part to increased acreage and good weather, grower-shippers said.

The production is up dramatically in the hill country of western North Carolina, said Ervin Lineberger, president of the association and owner of Killdeer Farm, Kings Mountain, N.C.

“Our yields per acre are much bigger than other regions, such as south Georgia,” he said. “Our average field is hitting 15,000 pounds to 16,000 pounds per acre,” he said. “That equates to 3,000 flats per acre compared to 1,550 flats to 1,600 flats per acre in other growing regions.”

The large volume and what Lineberger calls mediocre demand has depressed prices, but he expects prices to strengthen as the season progresses.

Most of the Southeast will continue to harvest until about mid-August, Lineberger said, but the hill country will continue to produce blackberries into September.

The association, known until a name change last year as the North American Bramble Growers Association, will soon unveil a new logo, said Debby Wechsler, executive secretary. Also new for the association is the planned location of the organization’s annual conference. The gathering is scheduled for Feb. 25-27 in Monterey, Calif., Wechsler said.

“I think it will be the first time we’ve held the conference on the West Coast,” she said.

While the blackberries are a major crop in the Southeast, the region is not a mayor player in the raspberry industry, Lineberger said. The fruit is not grown in the coastal plains and only a limited amount of raspberry acreage is planted in the hill country, he said.

“Most of the fresh raspberries for the balance of summer will come from California,” Lineberger said.

Berry packaging in the Southeast is evolving. Club stores and some retailers are demanding 18-ounce clamshells and 12 ounce clamshells in addition to pints and half-pints, Lineberger said. As recently as five years ago, he said, the berries shipped only in half-pints.

Few Southeast retailers are employing endcap berry patch displays that have become common in the West, Lineberger said.

“We don’t have the availability of berries as they do in California,” he said. “We have blacks at times, we have raspberries at times, and we have strawberries at times.”

The growth in blackberry acreage in western North Carolina, Lineberger said, is driven, in part by major grower-shippers headquartered outside of the state. Among them, he said, is SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla. Blackberries are but one commodity to carry the SunnyRidge Farm label, however.

Michigan blueberries

Michigan blueberries distributed by SunnyRidge Farm will be available through August and into early September, said Keith Mixon, president.

“The Michigan blueberry season started strong, and we believe we’re shipping the gold standard of Michigan blueberries,” he said.

The company’s blueberry growers in British Columbia will be peaking in early August, he said, and are shipping fruit that rivals the quality of the Michigan deal. In the early fall, SunnyRidge will be importing blueberries from Argentina and Mexican raspberries and blackberries, Mixon said.

The company’s final domestic berry crop of 2009 will be Florida strawberries that Mixon said should hit the market in early November. Some of that fruit will come from the company’s own Florida fields. SunnyRidge also grows in Georgia and Mexico, Mixon said.

Despite its name, the inventory of at Coral Springs, Fla.-based Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc. is not limited to offshore produce.

The company expected to be out of New Jersey blueberries by the end of July, said owner Dave Bowe. However, the shipping of Michigan blueberries began in July and will continue into early October, he said. Some of the Michigan crop will store in controlled-atmosphere units to stretch the season for retailers, Bowe said.

Simultaneous with the Michigan berries, Dave’s Specialty Imports will be offering blueberries grown in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Bowe said.

The Mother’s Choice label remains the standard for the 25-year-old company.

Berries from Argentina

Dave’s Specialty Imports, which has become a three-generation firm with sons Mike and Chris and grandson Ryan in the company, will begin importing blueberries from Argentina in mid- to late September, Bowe said. Blueberries from Chile should start arriving in October, he said, and the company also will have fall imports of blackberries from Uruguay, Guatemala and Mexico.

Other parts of the country may join the blackberry industry in the coming years, Lineberger said, thanks to research projects by Professor John Clark at the University of Arkansas.

Clark is developing primacane blackberries, which produce a crop on the first year’s vegetation, Lineberger said.

“If he gets us a good primacane variety, the Southeast could be producing into October or at least until the first frost,” he said.

Such a variety also could push the industry into upstate New York and upper Ohio, Lineberger said. Those areas can’t produce blackberries now, because the plants can’t endure the cold winters.

“With a primacane variety, growers could cut the vines down to the soil level, the plants would overwinter as underground plants, and the new branches the following summer would produce fruit,” Lineberger said.

Primacane berries also could mean more members for the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association, an organization that has done little to promote its members’ berries, Lineberger said.

“We’re going to make some changes,” he said. “We want to be a big part of the berry industry.”



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