Oregon growers expect to beat record for blueberry volume

07/27/2009 11:01:24 AM
Don Schrack

Oregon blueberry grower-shippers are on track for record volume that could exceed 50 million pounds.

That’s an 11% increase over the previous record of 45 million pounds set in 2007, said Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, Salem.

Hurst’s Berry Farm Inc., Sheridan, Ore., is among the state’s larger blueberry grower-shippers, but also offers five other types of berries, said Doug Perkins, sales manager.

The number of varieties in the inventory at Oregon Berry Packing Co., Sheridan, is equally large, said owner Roy Malensky.

The state’s grower-shippers are in the midst of the second harvest peak. The early season duke variety begin to wind down in mid-July just as volume of the blue crop variety began to ramp up, Perkins said.

“We had a wonderful start to the season. The weather has been fantastic,” he said.

Promotable supplies of blueberries from Hurst’s Berry Farm will be available through September, and maybe into October, Perkins said.

Despite a cool spring that brought color and firmness to the blueberry crop, the warmer early summer weather permitted Oregon Berry Packing to begin its harvest in late June, Malensky said.

“We’ll go into the middle of September because we have about 12 varieties of blueberries,” he said.

Hurst’s Berry Farm will contribute to the anticipated record blueberry crop. The volume for all of the company’s berry varieties should rise, Perkins said, partly because of new plantings. Oregon Packing’s blueberry crop could be as much as 30% larger than its 2008 deal, Malensky said.

A major construction project at Hurst’s finished before the berry season kickoff.

“Now for the first time for us in Oregon we’re packing everything in a cold room,” Perkins said.

Currants, gooseberries

That gets field heat out of the fruit quickly and gives retailers extended shelf life and consistent quality, he said. In addition to blueberries, other berries coming out of Hurst’s Berry Farm this season include blackberries, gooseberries, currants, kiwi berries and, for the first time in several years, raspberries.

Gooseberries, a commodity with a long history at Hurst’s Berry Farm, has been making a bit of a comeback this season, Perkins said. A heavy crop should wind down the end of July.

Picking of currants, offered by Hurst’s in both red and white, will continue into early August, Perkins said.

“We seem to be getting a nice bump out of shoppers’ looking for something a little different,” he said.

Raspberries can be temperamental because of Oregon’s climate, Perkins said. The company returned to the raspberry industry this season, but plans to remain a small player compared to Hurst’s large blueberry production.

The only Oregon berry crop that seemed to decline somewhat this season was strawberries, Malensky said. The harvest lasted just over two weeks with the bulk of the crop going to processors in Japan, he said.

Black raspberries

Processors will get all of Oregon Packing’s black raspberries, Malensky said.

“We’ve had a good crop, but prices were soft because the processors still have inventory from last year,” he said.

Berry lovers are very fond of the flavor of the black raspberries, Malensky said, but the variety does not sell well as fresh fruit because of its short shelf life.

The latest of the berry varieties at Hurst’s is the kiwi berry, which will be available well into October, Perkins said. A hurdle that kiwi berry grower-shippers have to overcome, he said, is the consumers’ general lack of knowledge about the fruit.

“A big part of our push is education,” he said. “We start with the label and let people know it’s an item that is best when it is a little soft.”

Perkins expects sales of kiwi berries to grow.

“It’s a product people are starting to appreciate,” he said.

 

Foodservice interest in blueberries grows

Retailers remain the biggest customers for Oregon’s blueberries, but there is growing interest in foodservice, Malensky said. Unlike some other types of berries, blueberries hold well, he said, which is an advantage for foodservice operators.

“They’re just phenomenal to work with because they wait for you,” Malensky said.

Perkins also sees foodservice as an area that “still has tremendous growth potential.”

Shoppers in the Southwest have been slower than consumers in other regions of the country to jump on the blueberry bandwagon, but Perkins said things are changing, especially in California.

He points to that state’s burgeoning blueberry industry as a catalyst for the growing popularity of blueberries among Californians.

“It helps when the fruit is grown in their own backyard,” he said.

The proximity of the harvest does not seem to be an issue that affects foreign blueberry fans. More than 50% of Oregon Packing’s blueberry crop will be exported, Malensky said.

There’s no concern at Hurst’s Berry Farm that its other berries will steal market share from blueberries.

“The growth in blues in recent years has been phenomenal,” he said, “I don’t think the specialty berries are cutting into the blues. I think they are riding the wave.”

A reason for that ride, he said, is that retailers are looking for more space to promote berries in general.

Hurst’s Berry Farm is a grower-shipper, but it packs and also markets for contract growers, Perkins said. Selling berries dictates working closely with retailers and growers, he said.

“We’ve enjoy being in the middle and putting the two parties together,” Perkins said.



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