The Mid-Columbia’s blueberries came early this year, generating excitement — and some confusion — among berry-lovers in the region.
K & K Blueberries in Hermiston began this year’s harvest June 13, co-owner Kathy Dopps said. This is almost two weeks sooner than last year, when harvest began around June 25.
“It’s definitely early this year, for all of us,” she said. “Most of the crops are around two weeks early — cherries, everything.”
Julie Michener of Bill’s Berry Farm near Grandview said it’s just a matter of heat. This year, there were more “heat units” for each day of spring, meaning the blueberries ripened earlier.
Though the crop’s early arrival doesn’t create any problems related to quality — this year’s berries are as tasty as ever — getting the word out to those who love to eat the berries can be more difficult.
“It does affect (business) when they’re early a little bit,” Michener said. “People on our mailing list and on our Facebook, we let them know. But people who are not as connected to us, they’re caught off guard.”
The same thing happened with this year’s strawberry crop, Michener said. Some people called in, ready to pick, after the strawberries already were gone.
“People in general do not know when food is ripe because when we go to the grocery store, we can buy blueberries every day,” Michener said.
For example, many of Michener’s clients from Western Washington don’t realize that blueberries ripen earlier on the east side of the state, she said.
In the Mid-Columbia, where temperatures run higher, blueberries are ready in June. In the west, where temperatures are lower, blueberry crops are ready weeks to a month later, with harvest usually beginning in mid-July.
While the heat can cause some scheduling issues, it is the main driver behind the region’s rapidly growing blueberry industry: The more heat, the more blueberries per acre.
Though the soil in the region is not acidic enough for blueberries naturally, it can be easily amended to make it more acidic. After that process is complete, the sun’s the limit.
The heat has another benefit, Michener said. The hotter the temperatures, the sweeter the fruit.
“It’s a very good crop this year: nice, large, and tasty,” Dopps said. “People are extremely pleased when they come on out.”
This has led to the number of regional acres dedicated to blueberries, growing from 4,000 acres in 2006 to an estimated 13,000 acres today.
The acreage is expected to continue to grow. Alan Schreiber, director of the Washington Blueberry Commission, estimates there will be 15,000 acres of blueberry fields in the region by the end of the year.
The blueberry boom also is caused by a relatively stagnant economy for the region’s more traditional apple and cherry industries, Michener said. While apples and cherries remain popular, blueberries are considered among the healthiest fruits on the market, with some people going so far as to label it a “super fruit.”
“People are getting acquainted with them, and with how healthy they are,” Michener said of blueberries. “They’re easy to pop in. You don’t have to peel them. They freeze well. There’s a ton of upsurge in the demand, and it’s still going.”