Deborah Davis gently rolled off a ripe blueberry from a cluster with a mix of blue, purple and green berries at Berry Blue Farms near Burbank.
The ripe ones come off easily, she said.
Davis plans to open the five-acre u-pick operation she started with her father, Paul Sullivan, on Wednesday, a week earlier than last year.
The variety they grow -- Early Blue -- is among the first ready for harvest and is a super-sweet variety, Davis said.
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Some Mid-Columbia farmers also will begin harvesting Duke blueberries this week, one of the most common varieties, said Alan Schreiber, director of the Washington Blueberry Commission in Eltopia.
A combination of additional acres of blueberry and a good growing year means Eastern Washington will be producing a lot of blueberries this year, he said.
Eastern Washington has about 4,300 acres of blueberries, some of which are grown in Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, Grant and Yakima counties, Schreiber said.
High demand, more acres
Brandon Lott, co-owner of Applegate Orchards near Burbank, said the market for blueberries continues to look strong.
Eastern Washington farmers began to grow blueberries about a decade ago, and Schreiber anticipates continued growth in the number of acres dedicated to the berry.
Growers are adding later varieties, and harvest this year is expected to last until the first week of October.
"There is tremendous demand for blueberries," he said. "It's amazing."
Franklin County produces the second most blueberries in the state, about 24.3 million pounds, right behind Whatcom County, which produces 29.8 million pounds.
Walla Walla County produces about 2.3 million pounds, making it the state's fourth largest county for blueberries, Schreiber said. Skagit County, the state's third top blueberry producer, harvests 4.2 million pounds.
Yield is expected to be up this year, according to area farmers.
Overall, blueberry farmers reported they did not lose a significant amount of the potential crop to frost, Schreiber said.
At Berry Blue Farms, Sullivan said about a third of the potential berries were lost to frost. Blooms were damaged when temperatures dropped as low as 22 degrees one day in May.
Organic and blue
About half of Eastern Washington's blueberries are sold fresh, and the rest are processed, Schreiber said. Eastern Washington has more organic fresh blueberries than conventional ones.
That is thanks to ideal growing conditions and the lack of pests because blueberries have not been grown in this area for a long period of time, he said.
Lott of Applegate Orchards said workers will begin picking mature berries on his 250 organic acres this week. His u-pick operation likely will open during the last week of June.
At the peak of harvest, up to 350 workers will be hand-picking blueberries at Applegate Orchards, Lott said. They pick just the blue ones, so the same bushes may be picked four times.
His yield is expected to be higher this year since his bushes continue to grow.
Applegate Orchards' fresh blueberries are sold across the nation, Lott said.
Though Berry Blue Farms isn't certified organic, Davis said it uses organic practices. Spiders take care of any pests, and organic fertilizer is delivered through the drip irrigation system.
But birds are a major threat to the berries, as they like to take a single peck out of the fruit and seem to have a talent for finding the ripe ones, Davis said. A cannon is used to scare them away.
At Berry Blue Farms, families can bring their own buckets, get a quick lesson about how to pick the berries and then dive right in.
Davis and Sullivan planted about 6,000 blueberry bushes in 2005 and opened a u-pick operation four years later. They say they have found a niche with their five acres.
Davis and a few employees also pick blueberries to sell at the Pasco, Southridge and Walla Walla farmers markets. Her daughters, Paytin, 14, Sydney, 13, and Maycee, 11, also help.
Each blueberry bush can produce up to 500 blueberries. And Davis said it may take three to four weeks for them to be picked.
"It's amazing how many blueberries are on an acre," Sullivan said.
Some people prefer the taste of smaller berries, while others like the larger ones, Davis said. That is why she encourages people to taste a few while picking.
At Bill's Berry Farm near Grandview, co-owner Bill Michener is looking at opening his blueberries for u-pick Saturday or Monday.
"I have some that are blue now, but not very many," he said earlier last week about his seven acres.
This year's crop should be more than last year, as the plants still are growing, Michener said.
In addition to the u-pick operations, Michener said workers also pick blueberries to sell and to freeze to sell during winter months. Some of his berries also will be sold at co-ops.