Berries Catching on in California

Growing berries presents thorny challenges not limited to the sharp spikes.

Published on: May 15, 2010

Berries are the fine wine of fresh fruits and vegetables. Berry production is catching on in California, but they provide challenges as they are expensive to produce and expensive for consumers to buy and thus market.

Growing berries presents thorny challenges that aren’t limited to the sharp spikes on some varieties’ canes. Berries are expensive to establish, require intensive soil pH monitoring, have labor-intensive harvest needs and are tricky to ship.

Despite their healthfulness, the cost of berries, relative to other fruits and vegetables, may deter some consumers.

“The average person won’t pay $3.50 for a small box of berries,” said University of Arkansas fruit breeder John Clark at a recent California blueberry meeting. However, he noted, many people seem to be willing to spend $3.50 on a pack of cigarettes or a box of cookies.

Postharvest specialist Carlos Crisosto, based at Kearney, is comparing the shelf life and fruit storage needs of different blueberry varieties.
Postharvest specialist Carlos Crisosto, based at Kearney, is comparing the shelf life and fruit storage needs of different blueberry varieties.

“The percentage of people with low incomes who eat berries will increase when they become more educated about the product,” Clark said.

California growers are counting on consumers to buy an even more pricy product. They are aiming to harvest their berries when fruit from other parts of the country – where the bulk of U.S. berries are grown – are not available. Through the winter months, 4.4-ounce containers of berries grown at mild Central Coast and Southern California farms fetch $6 or $7 at supermarkets and $4 to $5 at farmers’ markets, according to Santa Barbara small-farm advisor Mark Gaskell.

“Wholesale prices for organic blueberries have not been below $30 since October and are now $47 (for a 3.5-pound flat),” Gaskell said. “And the buyers just say ‘more.’

Many of the challenges are being tackled by UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors up and down the state. A California blueberry research pioneer is Manuel Jimenez, small-scale farm advisor for Tulare County. Jimenez has isolated four or five blueberry varieties that, he says, “aren’t perfect” for the San Joaquin Valley, but getting close.

Eight years ago, he began researching varieties at the UC Kearney Research and Extension Center near Parlier that over time have numbered 52 different types. Each year he conducts one of the best-attended field days at Kearney, drawing speakers and growers from all over California, many parts of the U.S. and overseas. Jimenez has isolated four or five blueberry varieties that, he says, “aren’t perfect” for the San Joaquin Valley, but getting close.

Growers at the May field day were invited to inspect the blueberry planting and taste the fruit to find varieties with berries that were large, flavorful, light in color and crisp, attributes that are popular with consumers. Other characteristics growers look for are early ripening, in order to hit the most lucrative marketing windows; berries presenting themselves at the outside of the plant for harvesting ease; and stems that readily break off when the fruit is picked, leaving a small, dry scar.

A section of 35 blackberry varieties growing at Kearney presented growers with additional options. Still more delicate, blackberries are generally even harder to find at grocery stores. However, stepped up production in Mexico is getting produce buyers more familiar with finding the unique texture and taste of blackberries in their neighborhood market’s produce department.