A decade ago, you could have counted on one hand the number of commercial blueberry fields east of the Cascades. But that’s changing fast.
The Lott family in Burbank planted some of the first blueberry bushes in the Mid-Columbia almost 10 years ago.
Now they tend 250 acres at Blue Mountain Farms, producing the tasty indigo berries and selling the bulk of their organically-grown crop to wholesalers.
Others, like Bill and Julie Michener, owners of Bill’s Berry Farm in Grandview, soon followed their lead. They planted eight acres.
Alan Schreiber, director of the Washington Blueberry Commission in Eltopia, estimates there now are about 11,000 acres of blueberries planted in the state.
2011’s crop of 61 million pounds made Washington the nation’s top producer of blueberries.
And in 2011, 30 percent of the state crop was grown by about 40 growers in Eastern Washington. In 2014, the east side is expected to produce half the state’s crop.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Statistics Service in Olympia tries to keep track of the acreage of all crops.
“But they simply don’t know them all,” Schreiber said. “I don’t. I was talking to a man the other day and he mentioned he has 75 acres of blueberries, and I’d never heard of him before.”
Schreiber said he expects growers statewide will have 100 million pounds by 2015.
“We’re one of the largest blueberry-growing areas in the world,” Schreiber said.
He credits the growth to a combination of factors — existing plantings are maturing and more of the perennial bushes are being planted.
For example, the Micheners’ plants have yet to reach full potential.
“They’re putting off good-size berries but haven’t peaked, they’re not at full tonnage yet. We’re getting 40,000 to 50,000 pounds, but in Eastern Washington we can get 10 tons per acre potentially,” said Julie Michener.
The warm sunny days in Eastern Washington make the berries grow larger than they do for the same varieties grown on the west side of the state, she said.
“They get half the tonnage,” she said.
Another big advantage in the Mid-Columbia is they’ve never grown here naturally. “So we don’t have the insects and diseases that normally plague blueberries,” Schreiber said.
And because we’re naturally drier, we don’t have the fungus problems they contend with, said Julie Michener.
And that makes it easier to grow organic blueberries.
“We’re certified organic and sell to different stores through brokers who market our fruit to the big chain stores — Walmart, Trader Joes, Fred Meyer, Safeway, Costco. If you see blueberries in the organic sections, they might be ours,” Shirley Lott said.
“The value of the state’s blueberry crop, both fresh and processed, is over $100 million,” Schreiber said.
What’s interesting, he said, is in the face of record production in Washington, Oregon and across the country, prices haven’t fallen.
He attributes it to the fact that people have significantly increased their consumption of blueberries. There’s been a lot of research showing blueberries have lots of health benefits. They’re high in antioxidants, which help ward off cancer and cardiovascular disease, and help improve memory.
They’re also easy to eat out of hand.
“They’re not like raspberries, which mash up in your hand. And like grapes, they last for a while in the fridge,” Lott said.
Schreiber said there has been a lot of research on blueberries, and varieties have been developed that ripen earlier and later in the year too. Typically blueberry harvest runs from mid-June to July in Eastern Washington.
“These new varieties expand the harvest so people can eat them fresh more year-round. They’re not as seasonal as they used to be,” Schreiber said.