In Season: California now a center of blueberry agriculture

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2012 - 5:28 pm

They're cute little blue powerhouses, packed with antioxidants and flavor. Eat them by the handful or pop them into pancakes and muffins. And kids love them, too.

Blueberries – one of America's original favorite foods – have soared in demand as more consumers tap into their many health benefits. The Central Valley crop is now in stores and farmers markets.

Due to the nation's blueberry boom, California farmers have started growing more to meet demand. The state's production has zoomed almost 52 percent in just three years.

"We went from 29 million pounds to 44 million pounds," said Alex Ott, executive director of the Fresno-based California Blueberry Commission. "We used to be ranked eighth or ninth (among states) in total production. Now, we're fifth or sixth – and growing."

In another sign of California's blueberry bonanza, the United States Highbush Blueberry Council is headquartered in Folsom.

On average, Americans eat twice as many blueberries as they did a decade ago. That consumption is expected to keep climbing.

"It's a combination of things," Ott said. "Definitely health benefits have helped drive consumer demand. Without a doubt, blueberries are a 'super' fruit. They're very high in antioxidants.

"But another major factor, all kids just love them," he added. "They'll eat them like popcorn. They're a real easy snack that's good for them, too. Instead of junk food, parents give their kids blueberries."

With that in mind, the U.S. council recently launched the "Little Blue Dynamos" national marketing campaign, targeted at moms and young families.

"We know that people are drawn to blueberries not just because they're healthy, but also because of all the positive memories and experiences they've had with them," said Mark Villata, the council's executive director. "The Little Blue Dynamos … marries the functional perks of blueberries – good nutrition, great taste, convenience and versatility – with all the happy feelings this tiny fruit evokes – energy, enthusiasm, nostalgia and even joy."

Blueberries now are America's second favorite berry, behind only strawberries. Where once they were associated with bogs in Maine and a very short summer season, they're now available year-round. (The winter crop comes from South America and Mexico.) You can even get them at McDonald's atop oatmeal.

Blueberry mania also has prompted cooks to go beyond muffins and pancakes to experiment with this colorful fruit. Blueberry margaritas anyone?

California's crop comes early – in February in the southern parts of the state. The harvest peaks in late May and June. Late June also is peak season for pick-your-own blueberries in Apple Hill near Camino.

"Blueberries are grown from San Diego to Corning," Ott said. "The bulk of the crop comes from the Central Valley, Kern County to Sacramento County.

"We have the perfect climate and perfect conditions for blueberries," he added. "That gives us very high yields. Typically in California, we see 10,000 to 12,000 pounds per acre. But some farms get 15,000 to 20,000 pounds per acre."

Blueberries grow well in the same places as a familiar wild berry – blackberries.

Located near Stockton, Victoria Island Farms is best known for its asparagus, but it has become a major blueberry producer.

Highbush blueberries thrive in the island's mineral-rich, peaty soil, just like blackberries have for centuries, said a Victoria Island spokesman. Harvested by hand, the blueberries go from field to package in under an hour.

Warm, dry weather and acidic soil boosts blueberry production. (Wet berries can't be harvested.) And blueberries must be picked ripe.

Severe hailstorms in April hit some growers hard. That affected the local crop.

"This year has been very interesting," Ott said. "The hail really hurt. We had warm weather, followed by cool weather and two huge days of windstorms. That wasn't good for blueberries. Overall, we won't reach the record level we had last year, but it still will be a very good crop."

California growers have yet to settle on which varieties perform best, Ott noted.

"We're still trying to dial in which are the best ones," Ott said. "Different varieties have different tastes. Some are woody, some sweet, some tart. It depends on consumer preferences."

Now in local markets are big, plump Legacy blueberries, a variety that's very sweet and very blue.

"What I like best about blueberries is just the convenience," Ott said. "They're real easy to eat. Just pop open the clamshell (container) and enjoy. You get all the health benefits without any work."

Blueberry basics

Nutrition: One cup of fresh blueberries contains about 84 calories and virtually no fat. They're rich in vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese and fiber. Blueberries also are renowned as a terrific source of antioxidants with 16 different phytonutrient compounds.

The number of berries per cup varies by the size of the berry. It can take 190 to 250 small blueberries to make one cup, while fewer than 90 extra-large blueberries equal the same amount. Because many of the antioxidants are concentrated in the skin, the smaller berries actually will have more antioxidants per cup.

Selection: Choose blueberries that are firm and have a bright, uniform color with a whitish "bloom" (the dusting that naturally protects the berry's skin). Shake the container; berries should move freely. If not, they may be too soft or damaged. Avoid berries that appear dull in color or soft and watery in texture.

Ripening: If blueberries are too hard or underripe, place them in a paper bag with an apple. The apple releases ethylene, a natural ripening agent.

Storage: Remove any crushed or overripe berries. Don't wash until ready to eat or use. Store in covered container in the refrigerator for up to three days. After that, they start to dehydrate.

Freezing: Wash and dry berries, then spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Freeze until solid. Then transfer them to a freezer bag. They'll keep for six months.

All around the blueberry bush

Cooking with blueberries: Blueberries can stain pots and pans as well as clothes. Use stainless steel or other nonreactive cookware.

In recipes such as muffins or pancakes, add blueberries to the batter last, just before cooking. The delicate berries burst with heat or mixing. By stirring them in gently just before baking, they will bleed less color into the batter.

Health benefits, concerns: Blueberries rank among the most antioxidant-packed foods available. Research has linked them to potential benefits to brain health and the nervous system as well as improved cardiovascular health and lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. They also can boost the body's immune system and help fight cancer. A recent study credited blueberries for improving memory in older adults, too.

On the downside, blueberries contain oxalates, which can create issues for persons with gall bladder or kidney problems. Oxalates also can interfere with the body's absorption of calcium.

High vs. low: Blueberry plants are divided into two groups: Highbush (which now account for most of the fresh crop) and lowbush (or wild).

Highbush blueberries – also called "cultivated" or "improved" – grow on erect plants that can reach 10 to 12 feet tall, but are pruned to 6 feet so they can be harvested by hand without ladders. Michigan is the nation's top highbush blueberry-producing state, accounting for almost a third of the total crop.

Highbush blueberries are further divided into northern (which need more cold weather to set fruit) and southern (the varieties that grow best in California). The top commercial California varieties include Legacy, Star, Emerald and Snow Chaser. Two different varieties are usually planted together to assure pollination.

A cousin of cranberries, lowbush blueberries – which grow under 2 feet tall – are native to Maine and Canada, where they are also farmed. Most of the lowbush crop is used for processed blueberries. The smaller berries are prized for their deep blue color and intense flavor. The wild lowbush blueberry is the official fruit of Maine.

Native fruit: The first Americans gathered wild blueberries, primarily in the Northeast, and blueberry cultivation eventually spread to many tribes. When colonists first arrived, American Indians introduced the newcomers to blueberries. Blueberries then found their way to Europe.

More than half of the world's blueberry production still comes from the United States. The top blueberry states are Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, California and North Carolina.

Blueberries also are grown in South America and Australia, so fresh berries are available year round.

Why are they blue: Concentrated in the berries' skin, anthocyanin is the pigment that turns blueberries deep, dark blue. When extracted, this pigment actually looks red. It's also a major antioxidant. That pigment also can leave a permanent blue stain. That's why blueberry farmers and packers tend to wear blue shirts and jeans.

To remove juice stains, rinse fresh marks as soon as possible in cold water. Soak more difficult stains in a solution of 1 tablespoon vinegar mixed in one quart warm water. Or try this method: Dissolve half a scoop of Tide with Bleach detergent in one gallon of warm water in a plastic bucket. Soak stained garment up to 30 minutes, then wash. Discard soaking solution before laundering. The official website of the Folsom-based United States Highbush Blueberry Council offers a wealth of recipes and tips. The council's kid-oriented "Little Blue Dynamo" campaign helps parents and teachers introduce children to this bite-size fun fruit.

– Debbie Arrington

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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