Temperatures soared above 100 degrees, threatening what was expected to be a record Oregon fresh blueberry deal, while near ideal weather conditions are making record harvests in Michigan and Canada.
Late-July temperatures were above 100 in Portland, Ore., which is about a 30-minute drive from the stateâs major blueberry production, said Roy Malensky, owner of Oregon Berry Packing Co., Sheridan.
âItâs the first time in 28 years weâve had three consecutive days of 100-plus highs, and it looks as if weâll go four days,â he said July 28. âThis is the hottest streak Iâve seen maybe ever.â
Compounding the dilemma, Malensky said, is that when and if temperatures drop below 100 degrees, the long-range forecast calls for highs to remain in the 90s for at least another four days. Some growers have harvested only about 25% of their crops, he said.
The fresh blueberry picture is much more positive in Michigan.
âIn July of last year, we shipped 53 million pounds of fresh blueberries,â Frank Bragg, chief executive officer of MGB Marketing, Grand Junction, Mich., said July 29. âWeâll ship maybe 65 million pounds this July.â
Until the Northwest heat wave, the North American blueberry industry was on track for a phenomenal fresh pick year. Though New Jersey was down about 19%, other states and Canada were reporting bumper crops, Bragg said. Through July 27, production in North Carolina was up 53%; Washington was up 128% and Canada was up more than 450%, he said.
âItâs a combination of factors,â Bragg said. âWeâve had ideal weather conditions producing great quality, and you have a processed market that has been paying at a marginal level to the grower. So the whole industry has been focused on the fresh market.â
The low prices paid by processors have been felt at Michigan Summer Blueberries Inc., Bangor, Mich., said George Fritz, president.
âWeâve experienced it big time with our growers,â he said. âMany have switched to the fresh world; theyâve bought pails, and theyâre out there picking.â
As a result, the high fresh-pick volumes are not surprising to Fritz.
âIt does not mean we have more acreage; it does not mean the crop is that much heavier,â he said.
Prior to the hot temperature onslaught in Oregon, the stateâs blueberry production was up 64% over the same period in 2008. A record volume of more than 50 million pounds was expected, Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, Salem, Ore., said.
âWeâre scrambling like mad to get the crop off before the berries burn and to get water on those berries we canât harvest,â Malensky said July 29.
One hurdle that growers must overcome, he said, is that there isnât sufficient irrigation water to cool all of the unpicked berry fields. Processing may not be an alternative, either.
âUnless you can make good grade, the crop isnât worth anything to the processors,â Malensky said.
The Michigan blueberry industry had experience building volumes during the last half of July, Bragg said.
âIâd say weâve just hit about break-even point to the grower in pricing,â he said July 29. âVolumes will begin to drop off fairly significantly in about ten days.â
Thatâs when he expects some growers to opt for sales to processors. The reason, he said, is that hand picking costs on fresh are dramatically higher than machine harvesting for processed berries.