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Oct 1, 2012
Consumers in the East want local berries

The buy-local movement is still boosting berry sales, especially for growers in the East. And despite all the growth in farm market, farmers’ market and CSA sales, there’s still room for more, according to sources.

An acquaintance that works in the grocery industry told Nate Nourse, sales director for Nourse Farms, a berry plant grower based in South Deerfield, Mass., that only 35 percent of people in grocery stores visit the produce aisle.

“That was astounding to me,” Nourse said. “There’s a lot more room to grow.”

Berries have been one of the main drivers of local sales. Berry consumption in the East is skyrocketing, led by strawberries. That growth has shifted sales away from the West Coast – which supplies much of the nation’s berries – and toward the East Coast, putting more money in the pockets of local growers, he said.

A few factors are driving the local sales phenomenon. Nostalgia and a taste for freshness have played roles, but much has been driven by a desire for safety. Confidence in the food-safety system has eroded, and consumers feel better when they can see the guy behind the counter, Nourse said.

Berry consumption is up in North Carolina. So is production. Day-neutral strawberry varieties, Albion chief among them, are allowing the state’s growers to extend their seasons, said Debby Wechsler, executive secretary of both the North Carolina Strawberry Association and North American Raspberry & Blackberry Association.

North Carolina had an early, mild spring in 2012. Growers with day-neutral varieties were picking into July – unheard of, because the heat usually shuts things down by then. Strawberries weren’t the main draw in July, but some growers found they would sell if they were part of a crop mix that included peaches, squash and other summer crops, Wechsler said.

Day-neutrals also allow North Carolina growers the possibility of planting another strawberry crop for the fall. In another change, more strawberry growers are switching from matted-row production to plasticulture, she said.

In the blackberry world, a recent technological innovation, the adjustable-arm trellis, is allowing growers to raise blackberries in cooler climates. Primocane blackberries were generating some buzz a couple of years ago, but growers are still figuring out the proper way to grow them in the North Carolina climate. They’re susceptible to frosts, she said.

There’s a strong potential market for blackberries and raspberries. People want to eat them. The trick is figuring out a production system that works for the region. Just because it works somewhere else doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in North Carolina, Wechsler said.

“Make sure you’ve done your homework before you grow something new,” she said.

Primocane blackberries haven’t quite panned out in New York state, either. Growers and breeders there are hunting for newer varieties, something with characteristics that better suit the state’s climate, said Marvin Pritts, a horticulture professor with Cornell University.

The buy-local phenomenon is pushing demand for berries in the Northeast. Growers in New York state are erecting high tunnels over their summer blackberries and fall raspberries. Day-neutral strawberries are making an impact, too. They’re more productive than New York’s more traditional varieties, Pritts said.

A more unfortunate trend has been the explosion of spotted wing drosophila in the Northeast this year, which might be a result of the mild winter. The pest is affecting a lot of late-summer fruit, including berries, Pritts said.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor





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