Sep 29, 2011
Healthy living boosting small fruit sales

Research showing the health benefits of eating small fruit is making for a bright picture for berry production going into the next several decades, said Eric Hanson, a horticulturist with Michigan State University. Add to that the increasing desire of consumers to buy locally grown produce and it makes for an interesting outlook for small fruit growers.

Eating healthy

Research continues to show that there are increased health benefits to eating berries. Tim Nourse, owner of Nourse Farms, a berry plant grower in western Massachusetts, said it’s essential for growers to keep abreast of the latest research and use that information to sell their produce.

“If you’re going to grow and sell berries, you need to know about the healthy aspects of eating them,” he said. “Your customers will.”

The belief that food products have medicinal properties has been a part of folk medicine for centuries, according to MBG Marketing, a cooperative of blueberry and small fruit growers and shippers.

In the United States, the nutrients in small fruit are part of a rapidly expanding area of biomedical research, generating considerable interest among consumers and growers alike, Hanson said.

Blueberries. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), there is growing evidence that blueberries are good for human health.

Researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Center have found that blueberries rank highest in antioxidant activity when compared to 40 other fresh fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants help neutralize harmful byproducts of metabolism that may lead to cancer and other age-related diseases. The most common comes from anthocyanin, the pigment that gives berries their color, according to USHBC.

There are additional USHBC studies that show links to urinary tract health, eyesight improvements and a possible use of blueberries as a source for lowering cholesterol.

Strawberries. Strawberries contain a broad range of beneficial nutrients, including vitamin C, folate and fiber. Researchers are also recognizing that the nutrients in strawberries may have considerable preventative effects on cardiovascular disease, cancer and cognitive decline, according to the California Strawberry Commission (CSC).

“Strawberries often get overlooked for healthy eating when compared to blueberries,” Hanson said. “They are loaded with antioxidants and other good stuff.”

Preliminary results from a CSC study show that within an hour of eating strawberries, antioxidant levels in the body show a definite increase.

Brambles. Brambles also contain strong antioxidants, such as vitamin C, quercetin and gallic acid, according to the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission (ORBC). Brambles have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Raspberry ketones are currently being used in Japan as a weight loss supplement. Red raspberry seed oil is creating market interest in the natural cosmetics industry as well, because it is rich in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acid. It has a sun protection factor of 24 to 50, making it very healthy for your skin, according to an ORBC report.

Fresh sales, traceability

Due in part to the buy-local movement, local farmers can make a significant amount of money selling fresh berries, especially brambles, Hanson said.

“With berries being so perishable and people wanting them, local farmers can turn a good profit by selling berries locally rather than the consumer having to rely on specialized areas shipping berries,” he said. “Different types of berries that may not grow the best in the big growing coastal regions allow for more diversity in berry types and flavor variants. There is a definite niche market there.”

High tunnel use can be a major advantage to a berry grower, no matter where he or she is. The increases in harvest and fruit quality can make berries very profitable for local production, Hanson said.

The market demand for fresh berries is high, and it looks to keep going up, Tim Nourse said.

“Berries are the most popular thing in farm markets,” he said. “People just want berries. If you took the amount of fruit sold direct to the consumer, my gut feeling is that it would be an amount greater than pick-your-own ever reached.”

There is one limiting factor to small fruit sales, though, and it is one of those things farmers can’t control, Hanson said.

“Even though there are some great health benefits to berries, some people still see them as a luxury item when shopping,” he said. “The demand for fresh fruit fluctuates with the economy. There isn’t much farmers can do about that.”

Another trend that has changed how we buy and sell small fruit is traceability, according to the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). Most small fruit sold fresh is sold in the clamshell container, which lends itself to traceability coding under the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), an agreement between growers and processors to code all produce sold to allow direct tracing back to the grower and/or picker.

Because traceability systems can provide information on the source, location, movement and storage conditions of produce, they also allow growers, packers, processors and distributors to identify factors affecting quality and delivery, according to PMA. While PTI has been a voluntary program to this point, consumer demand for it has made it a definite part of the small fruit landscape for the foreseeable future.

By Derrek Sigler, associate editor





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