May 25, 2012

True Blue: Bringing America's Berry to California

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For Kim Sorenson of Triple Delight Blueberries, the first spring blueberry harvest is one of the highlights of her year. “People get so excited at the farmers market,” she says. “Blueberries are a feel-good fruit. It’s something that takes people back to their childhood.”

Whether or not blueberries conjure up happy visions of gooey pies and freshly baked muffins in your mind, the berry’s roots in America’s collective memory run deep. One of the few fruits native to the continent, wild blueberries were gathered by Native Americans for centuries, and today the U.S. leads the world in blueberry production, with more than 240 million pounds harvested each year.

But only recently have locally grown blueberries become a common sight in California’s farmers markets. Since the mid-1990s, blueberry production in the state has surged, with around 4,500 acres currently in production. While California still has a long way to go catch up with top producers like Michigan, the crop is proving to be a winning commodity for farmers throughout the state.

The highbush blueberries grown in the Northeast need cold winters to thrive, which limited California production until a plant breeding breakthrough occurred in the 1990s. Breeders crossed northern highbush varieties with heat-tolerant wild species in Florida to create highbush hybrids that can thrive in warmer climates, and the California blueberry industry was born. News of studies proclaiming the berry’s potential health benefits, ranging from anticancer properties to improved cardiovascular health and protection from age-related memory loss, have fueled the growth of the market.

sites/default/files/blueberries_triple_family_0.jpgKim and her husband Mark at Triple Delight in Caruthers jumped on the blueberry bandwagon early on, in 1996. A fifth-generation raisin farmer in the Sun-Maid Growers cooperative, Mark decided to diversify the farm by planting five acres of blueberries when they were still a risky proposition in the Central Valley. After much trial and error, the Sorensons found a few varieties that worked in their sandy soil and made their niche selling direct to consumers through farmers markets around the state.

Since they started, Kim and Mark have seen the California blueberry industry explode. “There are more big farmers now, some that have put in hundreds of acres,” Kim says. “There aren’t too many of us small farmers now.” The Sorensons, with their 10 acres of blueberries, have kept the farm’s management and marketing among friends and family. Their three daughters, for whom the company is named, play an active role in the farm.

Since blueberries require acidic conditions, the farm uses thick mulch and drip-irrigated fertilizers to amend their sandy soil. While the farm is not organic, they do not use any sprays on their blueberries, Kim says, since they do not have any diseases or pests—except for small birds, which take their share of the harvest.

sites/default/files/scb_blueberries_frost.jpgFurther north, at Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm in the foothills east of Chico, the climate is much cooler than the Central Valley. At the farm’s 2,300 feet elevation, blueberries are naturally better adapted to the conditions but must contend with spring frosts and hailstorms, which can all but wipe out an entire crop.

As students at Chico State, John and Armen Carlon helped start the Chico farmers market, selling blueberries and other fruits grown on a test plot at the university. A rare sight at farmers markets, the berries sold like crazy. “I thought, ‘Here’s something that’s hard to grow but easy to sell, and you don’t need a lot land or equipment,’” says John. This got the couple’s gears turning. “The county ag commissioner said, ‘You can’t grow blueberries here,’” Armen remembers. “It was like when your parents tell you can’t do something: you want to do it more.”

Years before the development of the newer heat-tolerant varieties, the Carlons researched and experimented with existing highbush varieties. They eventually saved up enough money to purchase 60 acres between the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges and started Sierra Cascade in 1989, at which time there were only a couple hundred acres of blueberry production statewide.

Currently president of River Partners, an organization dedicated to wildlife habitat restoration, John brings a conservationist’s perspective to blueberry farming. “The more we researched blueberries, the more we liked them because they’re indigenous to America,” he notes. “They evolved here, and that creates opportunities if you want to grow organically.” One of the first certified organic blueberry farms in the state, Sierra Cascade has made a goal of farming “without off-farm inputs, organic or otherwise”—no compost, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or mulches. John credits their blueberries’ success to high levels of microorganisms in the soil, supported by biologically integrated agricultural practices.

sites/default/files/scb_blueberries_growing.jpgNurturing a diverse ecosystem of wildlife such as native bumblebees, gophers, and birds has helped the farm care for itself. “We try not to look at animals as enemies but as partners in the farming operation,” John explains. The presence of predator birds like owls and Cooper’s hawks has been instrumental in controlling the smaller birds that want their piece of the blueberry pie. “We still have bird damage, but they don’t trash the place,” he adds. “They fly in low and grab a berry and jam out, and we can live with that. We listen to them sing all year, and at the end of the harvest they clean everything up.”

Triple Delight’s Misty blueberries made their first appearance at the market last week, and Sierra Cascade plans to return to the Ferry Plaza in mid-June. Both the Carlons and Sorensons are hopeful that it will be a bountiful season, following a mild spring.

“It brings us a lot of joy to grow something that people love so much,” says Kim.

For inspiration on what to do with all those blue beauties, check out the Sorenson Family Blueberry Salsa and the Carlon Family Blueberry Pie.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »