CORVALLIS, Ore. - Oregon blueberry growers have a lot to smile about these days, according to an Oregon State University Extension Service berry crops expert.
With harvest now completed, projections are that growers will set new records for 2007 gross production and harvested acreage, and enjoy record-high market prices.
Last year the Oregon blueberry crop brought in a record $53.1 million in gross sales with more than 35.6 million pounds harvested. This year's crop is expected to easily exceed that level. And this comes on top of record-setting years for Oregon blueberry gross sales, prices, production and harvested acreage in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
"This is phenomenal growth, I've never seen anything like it," said Bernadine Strik, Oregon State University Extension berry crops specialist.
Consumer demand for blueberries has exploded in recent years due in part to widely reported scientific research about the health benefits of consuming this dark blue fruit.
According to Strik, harvested blueberry acreage in Oregon has more than doubled from 2,100 acres in 1995 to 4,400 acres in 2006. Industry leaders anticipate that hundreds more acres of blueberries will come into production over the next few years, she added.
The OSU Extension Service has expanded efforts to support Oregon blueberry producers as the industry has grown over the past decade.
Strik provides educational workshops for growers and has conducted extensive studies on crop management and mechanized harvesting systems.
"Advances in machine harvesting, in particular, have helped growers remain competitive by reducing harvesting costs," said Strik. Ten years ago, only about one-fourth of the Oregon blueberry crop was machine-harvested. Today growers use mechanical harvesters to bring in more than 90 percent of the crop, Strik said.
"In our outreach efforts we've tried to address all the key issues that will help our growers produce a quality product," Strik added. "And we've provided packaging and processing research to help insure the quality of the product when it reaches the consumer."
Yanyun Zhao, OSU Extension value-added foods specialist, is leading OSU research efforts on development of improved packaging systems for fresh berry products, including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.
"The goal is to find ways to increase the shelf-life of Oregon berry products, which will enable our growers to distribute more of their product in higher value fresh markets," said Zhao.
One promising approach involves the application of an edible film that can be used as a coating on individual berries, keeping them fresh longer. The coating can be consumed along with the berry. It has not yet been introduced commercially.
Zhao and Strik both work closely with berry growers' associations to identify and address the education needs of growers and processors.
"A continuing challenge for all our growers—blueberry, blackberry, raspberry and strawberry producers—is meeting global and domestic competition," said Zhao. "We're trying to help growers maintain a competitive edge by highlighting ongoing research about the health benefits of berries."
Zhao added that a useful online source of this information is the Berry Health Benefits Network, a Web site jointly developed by the OSU Extension Service in partnership with several regional and national berry industry associations. It offers summaries of the latest scientific research on nutritional advantages of consuming berries. See the site at: http://berryhealth.fst.oregonstate.edu
Another project is the Berry Health Benefits Symposium, an international scientific conference devoted to research on how berry fruits impact human health.
"This research conference promotes dialogue among scientists throughout the world who are actively conducting berry health research studies," said Zhao. "And it serves as a platform to help educate consumers about the latest berry health research findings."
The first two Berry Health Benefits Symposia were held on the OSU campus in 2005 and 2006. The next symposium is planned for 2009.