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Oregon blueberries: Early season may break records


Oneof the earliest blueberry harvests in decades is now underway in Oregon and, bythe end of the season, it could be one for the record books.

A mild winter andspring has led to excellentgrowing conditions. Combined with an increase inacres planted in blueberries, everything is ripe for a giant crop of the usualhigh-quality fruit.

“Thiscould be the year we finally hit the 100 million pound mark for Oregonblueberry production,” says Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the OregonBlueberry Commission. “The Pacific Northwest, ingeneral, is off the chartswith blueberry production this year and it’s exciting to see.”

Theold record for Oregon blueberry production was set in 2013 at about 93 millionpounds. Last year, production dropped a bit as hot weather reduced yields.Considering that less than 50 million pounds wereproduced a decade ago– andeven that was a record at the time– well, it’s easy to see that these are headytimes for Oregon blueberry growers.

“Ourblueberry industry has truly been one of the bright spots in Oregon agriculturefor more than a decade,” says Oregon Department of Agriculture DirectorKaty Coba. “It’s not every day you find acommodity that has shown thekind of rapid growth in production that we’ve seen with our blueberries.”

Blueberriescontinue to be an Oregon success story, even if the state has lost a littleground in national rankings. About 9,300 acres produced 86.1 million pounds ata value of more than $106 million. Georgiaemerged as the national leader inblueberry production followed by Washington, Michigan, then Oregon. But thiscould be the year the state emerges as the nation’s top blueberry producer, orclose to it.

Blueberryharvest normally shifts into high gear after the Fourth of July. This year,production is at least three weeks ahead of schedule. With different varietiesof blueberries planted around the state, thepicking should continue well intothe fall, which means Oregon consumers can enjoy fresh local blueberries forseveral more months– and beyond, if they consider freezing some of the berries.

“Consumermarkets have continued to grow,” says Ostlund. “The per capita consumption offresh blueberries over the last five to six years has grown tenfold. While wesee larger volumes go into the freshmarket, we are seeing even larger volumesgo into the freezer.”

Lastyear, direct sales from the grower to the consumer– largely through farmers’markets and roadside stands– reached 4 million pounds in Oregon. That doesn’ttake into account fresh local blueberries sold atretail stores.

Greattasting Oregon blueberries are being used in baking mixes and as an ingredientin other food products. And with more Oregon blueberries being frozen, thefruit is consumed year around.

It’sthe consumer that started this frenzy of activity for blueberry growers. Percapita consumption has increased in recent years not only in North America, butin Europe and Asia largely because of theblueberry health message– especiallyhelpful in dealing with such issues as child obesity and the baby boomgeneration rapidly moving into retirement years. In the 1990s, a TuftsUniversity study showed blueberriesto have higher antioxidant activity thanall other fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants neutralize the effects of freeradicals– those unstable compound molecules that can attack human cells anddamage DNA.

InAsia, McDonald’s deep fried blueberry pie was first touted by consumers asbeing healthy. Since that time, consumers worldwide have developed a betterunderstanding of what they are eating, where it iscoming from, and thenutritional values those foods contain.

“Thehealth benefits of our fruit is the overriding reason for our success in themarketplace,” says St. Paul grower Doug Krahmer, a member of the StateBoard of Agriculture. “At the same time, health benefitsalone will notsell fruit. The taste, convenience, and quality has to be high to continueselling our fruit at a price growers can make a profit.”

Thereare even non-food products making use of the Oregon blueberry. Several healthand beauty-related products use blueberries as an ingredient in dermal creamsto treat wrinkles and restore good skin color.

Petowners have been paying attention to the diet of their companion animals. As aresult, blueberries have become an ingredient in various pet food products.

Withmore Oregon blueberries on the market these days, exporting increases inimportance. In 2011, a trade agreement was reached that made Oregon the firststate allowed to ship fresh blueberries into SouthKorea. The first containersof this year’s crop are already headed across the Pacific.

“Thisis the fourth season we are shipping fresh blueberries to Korea,” says Ostlund.”Last year, we shipped about a million and a half pounds. We could easilydouble that amount this year.”

SouthKorea is now the top export market for Oregon blueberries, but Japan, thePhilippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam are key markets as well.

Thedemand for blueberries has changed the landscape of the Oregon farms thatproduce them. In the late 1990s, the average size blueberry farm was about 10acres. There are still plenty of smaller operations,but now it’s not uncommonto see a farm growing 500 or 1,000 acres of blueberries.

Anexpected record setting harvest and another 10 million pounds or so of berriesthis year should push the overall value of production past last year’s mark andperhaps lift blueberries into Oregon’s top ten ofall agricultural commodities.

Allthat fruit puts the consumer in position to get a great tasting Oregon blueberryat a good price.

“Takeadvantage of the early season,” says Ostlund. “Ample fruit is available. If youlike blueberries, now is the time to get them.”

Formore information, contact Bryan Ostlund at (503- 364-2944 .

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