Raspberry Blues: Southwest Washington's harvest fell by 16 percent this year

Farmers turning to other crops may be the culprit

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Southwest Washington's raspberry harvest dropped by 16 percent this year, most likely due to frustrated growers turning to crops offering better financial returns.

But due to an early summer recall of contaminated frozen berry products following an outbreak of a rare strain of the hepatitis A virus, growers who stuck with the tantalizing crop ended up making a decent return, a rarity in recent years.

A new crop assessment report from the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, based in Lynden, showed a 16.4 percent drop in the raspberry harvest in Southwest Washington, an area that is home to only 12 growers. The harvest increased by 8.6 percent statewide, and by 9.8 percent in Whatcom County, where 93 of the state's 122 growers account for more than 93 percent of the state's crop. Nearly all of the state's berries are sold for the frozen food market, said Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission.

Bierlink had no specific information about why production had dropped in Southwest Washington, but speculated that a long history of weak prices had taken its toll. In the past decade, Bierlink said, the state's growers have rarely delivered a strong return. Meanwhile, blueberries have proven profitable as the industry has succeeded in educating consumers about the health benefits of antioxidants.

"Blueberries have been where the action has been," he said,

Jon Cotton, manager of Silver Star Farms in Battle Ground, agreed that raspberries have produced little profit in recent years.

"A lot of growers have taken acreage out of raspberries or are just quitting (raspberries) altogether," he said. "The pricing is so poor. Growers aren't going to stick their necks out for a crop they can't make a decent living at."

Cotton remains skeptical that the current higher prices for blueberries can be sustained. He predicts declining prices as more growers rush into that market.

"I don't see many raspberry growers having the financial wherewithal to make that move," he said. "Blueberries are going into the same pricing headache as raspberries."

This year, though, his farm and others benefitted from a well-publicized recall of frozen berry products contaminated with a hepatitis A strain that is uncommon in the U.S. Products from foreign countries containing berries and other fruits were responsible for 49 people in seven states contracting hepatitis A, most likely through the pomegranate seeds imported from Turkey, the New York Times reported.

As a result, Costco and other bulk buyers sought out U.S. berries and were willing to pay a higher price than in past years, Cotton said. Some who contracted the disease have permanent liver damage, and "I don't think buyers were willing to take that risk to save 10 cents a pound," he said. His farm, with 150 acres, sold its "instant quick frozen" berries for about $1.40 per pound this year, compared to just over $1 per pound a year ago, Cotton said.

"We made some money this year, which was a huge turnaround," he said.