This year marks the earliest start for Oregon's strawberry harvest in eight years, with warm spring weather helping mature the crop ahead of the norm.
Oregon's strawberry industry, greatly diminished in recent years, is still producing some of the highest quality product in the region, proclaims the Oregon Department of Agriculture's trade manager
"Our strawberries are a symbol of the coming summer," Laura Barton notes. "Everyone gets really excited when fresh strawberries come into season."
ODA predicts the state's industry will not return to its glory days, although it appears to have stabilized at 2,000 acres and 20 million pounds of product. A $15 million-a-year crop, strawberries represent only a small fraction of the state's farm industry, ranking 36th on the list of crops in terms of income. Total farm income for Oregon was put at $5.3 billion last year, with strawberries posting a mere $15 million.
In a shift in marketing, Oregon strawberries are selling more via the fresh channel than they did a few years ago, when most of the product was diverted into processed foods.
Ten years ago, about 7% of the crop was fresh marketed, a level that is now put at 16%. A reputation for high quality, including taste, may have led the march for greater fresh sales, driven by higher prices.
With a third of the crop now diverted to fresh, some feel there is new potential for Oregon's strawberry business. Last year, processing berries yielded a price of 58-cents per pound, compared with the fresh price more than 80-cents a pound higher.
"If you go way back in history, there were a lot of Oregon strawberries grown for the fresh market," says Barton. "The types of berries we grow, the flavor is amazing but the fruit tends to be very fragile.
"As a result, they have been more likely to be frozen, pureed, and concentrated, and are in high demand for sauces, jams and ice cream."