Just about every variety of berry in nearly every U.S. growing region got off to a late start this summer, but grower-shippers say the delays just gave their product more time to sweeten.

Consumers can expect high-quality, good-tasting fruit through the end of the season, which will be extended in some cases this year because of the late start, growers said.

Berry business has been building over the past several years, in part because consumers are discovering berries’ nutrition value.

“The health benefits message is driving the U.S. to higher levels of consumption than ever before,” said Chris Christian, vice president of marketing for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.

“The consumer continues to have a real strong love affair for fresh berries,” added Mike Klackle, vice president of berry sales for Curry & Co. LLC, Brooks, Ore.

“It’s the strongest category in the produce department today as far as representing percentage of sales and profitability to the retail community.”

Berries account for more than $3 billion in retail sales annually and remain the No. 1 category in the produce department, according to Fresh Look Marketing, Hoffman Estates, Ill.

“The berry category is hot,” said John Larse, general manager for Sweet Darling Sales Inc., Watsonville.

“The category in general seems to be increasing in its position at retail.”

This season’s slow start was giving way to increased volume as summer progressed.

The Watsonville strawberry deal, which started three weeks later than usual this spring, was hit by rain twice in June, which is in an unheard-of occurrence, Larse said.

Some growers threw away 60% of their crop in late June.

“We’ve never done that before at the end of June,” Larse said.

On the bright side, the popular albion variety is producing excellent-quality fruit this season.

“It’s one of the better years for that variety,” he said.

Blueberries also got a late start in Michigan and on the West Coast, but preliminary estimates from the North American Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif., indicate that growers in the U.S. and British Columbia will produce 320 million pounds of fresh blueberries this year, up from 296 million pounds last year.

U.S. per-capita consumption of fresh blueberries has risen to 17.8 ounces — up from 7.3 ounces five years ago, said Mark Villata, executive director.

Raspberries and blackberries also are gaining popularity.

Curry & Co., which has brokered some blackberries in the past, will pack its own for the first time this season, Klackle said.

HBF International LLC, Sheridan, Ore., should have blackberries through September, said Doug Perkins, managing director.

Heavy demand for the process market could drive up prices on fresh blackberries, he said.

Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Inc. will start a new raspberry deal in Oxnard, Calif., in late fall and will have raspberries from that region into summer, said Dan Crowley, sales manager.

The company should have plenty of its proprietary raspberry — the 2933 — this year, he said.