Blueberry harvest in home stretch; prices soften
By MITCH LIES
Quality issues with an early season variety and soft prices aren't dampening spirits for Oregon blueberry growers as a compressed 2013 harvest heads into the home stretch.
Growers are upbeat as labor appears sufficient to get the crop picked and the weather has cooperated during the first six weeks of the two-month harvest season.
Not even the presence of the U.S. Department of Labor has diminished spirits.
Mike Townsend of Townsend Farms and Jeff Malensky of Oregon Berry Packing said USDOL visited their farms, but left without issuing fines or threatening use of the "hot goods" provision of U.S. labor law.
"We were visited," Malensky said. "They did what they told us was a normal check. Hot goods has never been mentioned, and to our knowledge, it won't be."
The USDOL last year threatened to slap "hot goods" orders on three Oregon blueberry farms, leading the farms to settle for $240,000 in civil penalties and back wages.
As for the crop, Malensky, like other growers, said fruit and yields are about average, but that's an improvement over the past couple of years.
"The fruit coming in is much better than the past couple of seasons," Malensky said. "That is a big positive. For us, we have to have good quality coming in to be able to ship to our customers."
Even with the average per-acre yield, Malensky said he expects the state's crop to far exceed last year's, given that more acreage is in production.
Townsend said he expects the state's production to be up 7 million to 8 million pounds over last year.
Prices, meanwhile, have been soft, according to growers.
"Prices are not good," said Doug Krahmer of Berries Northwest. "The low end is below cost of production and the upper end is just above cost of production."
Krahmer said fresh prices were strong at the start of the year, but have fallen substantially as a compressed harvest season and strong crops here and elsewhere in the U.S. have combined to put a glut of blueberries on the market.
"Weather in the major growing areas has been good," Krahmer said, "so right now, New Jersey is picking a lot of fruit, Michigan is picking a lot of fruit and the Northwest is picking a lot of fruit."
Krahmer said harvest started about a week earlier than normal, and the season has compressed since then.
"The early varieties were a good week early, and the mid-season varieties were about 10 days early, and the late-season varieties are about 15 days early," he said.
Krahmer expected to be done harvesting Aug. 15, a full two weeks ahead of his normal Labor Day finish.
Also, Krahmer said, he had some issues with the early season variety Reka when rainy weather the final week of June combined with temperatures in the mid-90s the first week of July to dry out some fruit.
"The sort-out on the fresh lines was higher than normal because of that stretch of weather," he said.
Growers said labor has been adequate, if not abundant.
"In the early season, I thought we had plenty of labor," Krahmer said. "Two weeks ago, it was fairly tight. Now it has kind of loosened up and we're able to get more people out in the field again.
"It has been up and down, but we haven't had to leave any fruit in the field," he said.