Sep 29, 2011
Changing consumer demand affects small fruit

A lot has changed for small fruit over the last few decades, but those changes were quite different, depending on the crop.

Strawberries

The biggest changes for strawberries came about in the 1970s, when there was a huge buildup in the pick-your-own (PYO) market, said Tim Nourse, owner of Nourse Farms in western Massachusetts.

Nourse should know. He’s been in the industry for 43 years, and his company is one of the major suppliers of small fruit plants in the United States.

“PYO was definitely the big game in town back then,” he said.

Not only was PYO a great sales mechanism for growers, it also spurred the advancement of breeding, Nourse said. It was during this time that the North American Strawberry Growers Association (NASGA) formed, mostly out of necessity.

“USDA made it known that they didn’t intend to replace Don Scott as a breeder for strawberries in the USDA program,” Nourse said. “The growers knew that there was a need for new varieties to keep the industry going, so there was a concerned effort by the industry to place a breeder in the USDA program. Forming NASGA helped bring in Gene Galletta, who kept the breeding program alive for USDA and for growers.”

PYO was the standard business model for roughly 20 years, Nourse said. The late ’80s and ’90s, however, ushered in a different family model – where both parents worked. People had less time for PYO and consumer interest dropped sharply, but the market was still there for strawberries. This ushered in a rapid expansion in the fresh-picked and processed markets, he said.

There are still many PYO farms out there, but everyone’s PYO operations are much smaller today than they were in the ’70s, Nourse said.

A major change in production occurred when California began growing most of the nation’s strawberries, said Eric Hanson, a horticulturist with Michigan State University.

During the ’80s, the economics of production and the ideal climate conditions in California led to the development of a cultural system that was conducive to strawberries, Hanson said. In the past, strawberries were mostly grown as perennial plants on a matted-row system. In California, the growing system evolved into annual plants grown on raised beds with plastic mulch.

“The yields are multiple times higher with annuals,” Hanson said. “With the climate in California being close to even temperatures and moist air from the coast, the growing seasons are much longer, giving growers a longer, more profitable season with more fruit to sell.”

Strawberries grown in other regions of the country are now considered a short-season treat rather than a major source of supply, he said.

Brambles

The 1960s and ’70s were the lowest point of production for brambles on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Hanson said. In states like Michigan, New York and Ohio, there had been a significant wholesale industry, mostly for black raspberries. As with strawberries, bramble production gradually moved west to costal areas such as California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

It was the Heritage raspberry, which came out in the early 1980s that ushered in a more productive industry, Nourse said.

“The Heritage raspberry variety was the first major primocane, fall-bearing type bramble,” he said. “It was the beginning of the primocane industry. Today, the fall crop has a huge following. It made brambles not just a short-season summer crop.”

Primocanes didn’t really expand acreage; they just made more efficient use of the acreage already in production, Hanson said. They gave growers the option of producing fruit in the fall season or leaving the canes and producing the following summer on the existing floricanes. It made things more cost-efficient, he said.

An additional benefit to the primocane crop is ease of maintenance. When the crop is harvested, the grower doesn’t have to deal with tricky cane maintenance. He or she can simply mow the canes down, Nourse said.

One other factor in the resurgence of brambles and blueberries has to do with a focus on the chemicals within the berries, Nourse said.

“It seems like every day we hear of a new study that boasts of the healing and medicinal powers in small fruit,” he said.

Medicinal aspects of the red raspberry, for example, have been known for more than 2,000 years, according to the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission. The leaves were made into teas and various parts of the plant were used for different remedies. Research suggests that eating red raspberries may prevent cancer, according to the University of South Carolina.

Blueberries

One of the biggest impacts on blueberry production came about 50 years ago, Hanson said. It was around that time that full-scale mechanization was integrated into harvesting with over-the-row harvesters. Those first harvesting machines came out of southeast Michigan. Before then, everything was harvested by hand.

Mechanical harvesting of blueberries is now standard practice – except for the fresh market, still mainly harvested by hand.

“If we were just dealing with frozen or processed, we could mechanize, but for the fresh market you need hand-picked fruit,” said Mike Jawor, co-owner of Jawor Bros. Inc., a blueberry grower in Ravenna, Mich.

Marketing agreements and cooperatives have helped blueberries as well. The Jawors started with their dad back in 1962. From the beginning, they have been partners in MBG Marketing, known currently as The Blueberry People. MBG is a producer-owned, blueberry-marketing cooperative that formed in 1936.

By the 1950s, MBG was a major influence in the U.S. blueberry industry, coming up with pricing strategies, developing markets, providing horticultural expertise and research. Today, the organization has more than 300 grower/members in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Washington state and British Columbia.

“It’s been a very positive experience for us,” Jeff Jawor said. “MBG has helped shape the industry.”

The Pacific Northwest has grown in blueberry production in the last 50 years.

“Blueberries are another crop that have potential to provide pear and apple growers with an alternative to declining profitability,” said Steve Castagnoli, an Oregon State University Extension agent. “Harvested blueberry acreage in Oregon has increased nearly four-fold over the last 15 years to keep pace with increasing demand.”

Cranberries

Cranberries are major crops in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, with Wisconsin leading the nation in production. Oregon, Washington and New Jersey also produce on a smaller scale. Michigan had production as well, but most Michigan growers moved away from cranberries around the turn of the century. For much of the past 50 years, the fruit was a specialty item, Hanson said. Much of the fresh and processed supply was sold around the holidays.

A significant change in the cranberry market occurred when Ocean Spray introduced its line of blended juices. The areas that grew cranberries saw rapid increases in production, especially Wisconsin. Michigan and Maine also got back into cranberries to help meet the demand set in motion by Ocean Spray, Hanson said.

Propagation and disease

The way plants are propagated and tested for disease has changed dramatically over the years. As the consumer demand for healthier food has grown, the testing methods and propagation methods used have changed to reflect what the market demands, Nourse said.

Back in 1975, Nourse can recall the standards going in to raspberry plant production at the time. Black raspberry plants could be certified for sale with a 4 percent level of virus in the plant material.

With tissue culture sampling and better propagation techniques, the industry consistently produces clean plants, Nourse said. New York was one of the first states to sell clean plant stocks in brambles, due to techniques developed at Cornell University. This was a major change for the industry because the plants were not starting off with viruses, he said. Plants lived twice as long and were twice as productive. Growers were getting eight to nine years out of their plants instead of three to four, and the plants were bearing more fruit. It became more profitable to expand acreage.

The change was far less dramatic in strawberries, Nourse said. USDA was already a source for clean plants since the early 1960s.

During the 1960s and ’70s, the vast majority of strawberry plants used by growers from the Eastern states and Midwest came from Maryland. Today, there is not one propagator left in that state. Now, most of the plants are coming from Nourse Farms or a few other suppliers in Michigan, like Krohne Plant Farms, Nourse said.

The chemicals used to produce plants and crops are an ongoing evolution, he said.

“It’s odd to think of the major changes in chemistry,” he said. ”If we only knew then. I mean, we used to use mercury on the plants, if you can believe that!”

Health and traceability

Two major trends are changing the small fruit landscape: health and traceability.
The health benefits of small fruit are increasingly well documented, but consumers today also want to know where the berries came from, according to the Produce marketing Association (PMA).

At the retail level, most small fruit is marketed in a plastic clamshell container, which lends itself easily to current trends in traceability, according to PMA. Due to recent produce health scares, consumers want to be able to track the origin of their food to its original source. This has lead to an industry-driven response in the form of the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), in which processors and growers have agreed to set up a system that allows produce to be traced back to the grower.

The other trend involves significant health benefits associated with berry consumption, Hanson said. Cranberry juice, for example, is now an accepted form of treatment for curing urinary tract infections. The high levels of antioxidants in blueberries and raspberries make them popular choices; strawberries to a lesser extent. As more research comes out, the demand from consumers has steadily increased.

“Berries are very healthy, besides being really good to eat,” Hanson said. “The healthy benefits of berries will have a major impact on how we sell fruit going forward.”

By Derrek Sigler, associate editor





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