Prompted by renewed interest in fresh, locally grown produce, the Oregon strawberry appears primed for a comeback.
Oregon had 19,000 acres of strawberries in 1957, but by 2012 that figure had slipped to 2,000 acres. A state that once produced 100 million pounds of strawberries a year was below 20 million pounds this year.
About 80 percent of the berries now go to processing plants, destined to become ice cream ingredients.
Blueberries are the new state star, tripling in production value to nearly $117 million from 2009 to 2011 alone, and winning exclusive export status to South Korea. Blueberries now account for nearly 60 percent of the state’s berry production value.
Strawberries are hovering at 7 percent.
But tucked into the $1.5 million Oregon received in specialty crop block grants this year was $27,693 to show growers how they can sell fresh berries to farmers’ markets and specialty grocery stores, which pay more than processors.
Give the “foodies” credit for this one. Oregonians’ support of locally grown food isn’t a fad that will fade, experts say. Portlanders especially are willing to pay more for quality, and upscale grocery chains such as New Seasons, Whole Food and Market of Choice are clamoring for more Oregon strawberries.
“It’s one of the most beloved fruits in Oregon,” says Philip Gutt, who is administering the block grant for the Oregon Strawberry Commission. “We still get calls from people who want to know if there’s a source for Marshall strawberries (a variety popular in the 1960s). As soon as June hits, the farmers’ markets and local grocers are flooded with people looking for Oregon strawberries.”
New Seasons, a Portland-based chain that specializes in pricey, locally grown and organic items, could sell 50 percent more fresh strawberries than it now offers, estimates Chris Harris, a company produce merchandiser.
“There’s a huge demand from our customers for local Oregon strawberries, especially in June for the Hoods,” he says. “We’ve had trouble finding enough good strawberries for several years.”
Customers know what they want, he says.
“I think there’s a real interest in supporting a local food economy and supporting local producers,” he says. “All of that plays into it.”
Norcal Nursery of Red Bluff, Calif., which propagates 150 million strawberry plants annually for American and international growers, is already seeing a switch as farmers buy varieties more suited to the fresh market. Sales representative Greg McKay said the processing market is slipping and the fresh market is expanding.
“That trend is there,” he says.
The Oregon grant money will pay for a couple of workshops in 2014, the first in January.
Peerbolt Crop Management, a Portland ag consulting firm that specializes in berries and fruit, is helping with arrangements. The workshops will include information about varieties, growing techniques and market options. Grocery chain buyers will attend.
“The demand for fresh (berries) has really risen,” says Anna Peerbolt, partner in the consulting company with her husband, Tom. “Buyers are saying, ‘We can’t get enough of this.’
“This is an opportunity to get your feet wet in this and find out about it,” she says. “Obviously the market is there. Consumers want them and stores want them.”
Matt Unger already knows that. Unger, who farms in Cornelius 25 miles west of Portland, is chair of the Oregon Strawberry Commission and began selling at a farmers’ market in 1983. For the past 10 years he’s skipped the processors entirely and sold strictly on the fresh market — including at 15 farmers’ markets in the Portland area. New Seasons featured Unger Farms berries in its advertising last year.
He says specialty grocery stores seem keenly interested in carrying more fresh berries, and opportunity exists for other growers to step up.
“We’ve been contacted by a number of them and haven’t been able to supply them,” he says.
Fresh market berries require more care, Unger says. He grows them on raised beds covered by black plastic, with drip irrigation lines running under the plastic. The method keeps berries from getting muddy and reduces rot problems.
He grows about 20 acres of Hoods, the classic Oregon variety that comes on in June, and about 12 acres of Albions, a day-neutral or “ever bearing” variety that produces large, firm berries deep into October.
Albions are quite tasty — especially if you haven’t had a fresh berry for several months — but Hoods top them all, Unger says.
“You eat one of those and you go, ‘Oh, yeah,’” he says.
That’s something more Oregonians may be able to experience in the coming years.
“We see a potential for growth,” Unger says.