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Oregon, Washington blueberry crops set records


By JOHN SCHMITZ



For the Capital Press



Oregon and Washington continue to shatter blueberry production records year after year, with the 2012 harvest in each state projected to come in well above 2011.



While Washington is forecasting a 70 million-pound crop, up from 61 million pounds the year before, Oregon is looking at a 70 million- to 75 million-pound crop, compared to 65.5 million pounds in 2011.



Oregon production got a nice boost this year thanks to half a million pounds of fresh blueberries going into South Korea, a first-time fresh customer.



According to U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council preliminary figures, blueberry production along the entire west coast of North America is forecast at 285.9 million pounds for 2012.



Washington state has more than tripled its blueberry acres in the last five years. Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Blueberry Commission, said that a significant amount of the recent growth in blueberry acres in that state is occurring east of the Cascades, where newer, later-maturing varieties for the fresh market are becoming more popular.



In Washington, about 40 percent of crop goes to fresh market, with the remainder being processed, Schreiber said. Western Washington's crop mostly goes to processed.



"Historically, (statewide) it's been three-fourths or more processed," he said.



"Fresh has certainly increased over the last several years and now the largest part of what we produce goes fresh," said Oregon Blueberry Commission administrator Bryan Ostlund. "We'll be pushing 60 percent fresh in the very near future."



According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, 60 percent of all U.S. and British Columbia blueberries goes to fresh market. About 56 percent of West Coast and B.C. blueberries go to fresh market.



As for prices, "I think (they're) maintaining (for both fresh and processed)," said Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.



Villata wasn't concerned over higher U.S. cold storage holdings in September -- which were up 33 percent compared to last year. He looks for South Korea to continue to increase its demand.



"It was a very good season overall," said Mike Klackle, vice president, berry sales for fresh blueberry packer Curry & Co. in Brooks, Ore. "We'll take another one like it. The weather was good, timing was good, quality was good, and the marketplace was good. From a fresh view, the moon, sun and stars all lined up the right way this year."



While prices to growers were "down a little bit," fresh prices have been "significantly higher (with a bigger differential) than for processed blueberries," Klackle said.



The West Coast blueberry industry can look forward to continued growth, due especially to increasing demand from Pacific Rim countries and India, said nurseryman Cort Brazelton, business development manager for Fall Creek Farm & Nursery.



Most of the fresh and frozen fruit now going to Asia is grown on the West Coast and British Columbia, Brazelton said.



While he sees lots of future growth for the Northwest blueberry industry, "I would advise growers considering this crop to be very cautious," Brazelton said.



"Just because I'm bullish on the future doesn't mean this isn't a competitive business. It's more expensive to farm. Access to new genetics (and technology) is expensive. And there's a learning curve," said Brazelton.



His advice?



"If I was a new (blueberry) grower today I would first connect with all the handlers in this business and learn from them where the opportunities and challenges are. They're on the market side," he said. "Don't talk to the nurseries. Nurseries want to sell plants."



Brazelton said that to be successful, new growers need to hit the ground running and come into the industry at the same level as those who have been growing the crop for a long time.



The West Coast blueberry industry can look forward to continued growth, due especially to demand from Pacific Rim countries and India, Brazelton said. "Asia is going to be one of the biggest blueberry consumers in the world in the next 10 years, and not just China."



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