Little, blue, different

Blueberries are wildly popular—but Americans hardly eat them

Don’t spill the blueberries.

Don’t spill the blueberries.

Americans are bent on blueberries. Or perhaps it’s their antioxidants we’re really after. Anyway, the two go hand in hand and, as May approaches, fresh local blueberries are fattening on shrubby branches at a handful of local farms.

At Bolster’s Hilltop Ranch in Camino, customers must come and pick the fruit for themselves. Owner Jan Bolster, who first planted her blueberry bushes 20 years ago, said she and her husband once brought the berries to local farmers’ markets.

“Now we don’t have to,” said Bolster, whose 4 acres of fields produce nine varieties of blueberries, which occur among three species in the genus Vaccinium. The farm’s first variety to ripen each season is the duke blueberry. A particularly fat and plump berry, which becomes available in late May, it is also Bolster’s favorite.

Other California varieties include the sharpblue, Georgia gem, marimba, misty, Gulf Coast and Cape Fear blueberries. These are breeds that do well in warmer latitudes—and not all blueberries do.

The fruit, a native to North America, occurs naturally in colder climates, but since circa 1900, fruit breeders have enhanced the blueberry into domesticated forms that do well in regions as balmy as the swampy Southeast. These cultivated varieties, or cultivars, thrive in California, where the industry saw its current growth surge begin about 12 years ago.

The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council represents some 2,000 American blueberry growers, 35 cultivars of fruit and a half-billion pounds of annual production—and the industry organization chances to be based in nearby Folsom.

Here, executive director Mark Villata spends some portion of his time crunching numbers, and here are a few for kicks: In 2009, California produced 23 million pounds of highbush blueberries, seventh in the nation, with Michigan leading the way at 100 million pounds. National production in 2008 weighed in at 400 million pounds, and by 2014 that number could reach 900 million, said Villata. In California, highbush blueberry acreage ran 2,300 acres in 2005 and by 2008 had expanded to 5,100 acres.

In fact, production is exceeding demand.

“Anything that’s profitable California tends to overproduce,” said Jon Marthedal, a blueberry farmer with 160 acres near Fresno. Matherdal said that although the demand for blueberries is escalating, the production has simply grown too fast. While blueberry farming was a particularly profitable endeavor in 2005, by 2008 prices had slipped, and they still are as newly planted bushes begin spilling berries each new spring.

“Because to move that fruit before it spoils, all we can do is lower prices,” Matherdal explained.

Or edge it into new markets, and Matherdal has been supplying a Tulare County winery with berries for a line of blueberry wines not yet available but expected soon. The industry’s magnates, too, are actively promoting blueberries overseas, including Japan and Korea, where the fruit is still a new and novel thing.

Though Bolster’s Hilltop Ranch may be swarmed each June by enthusiastic pay-to-pick customers, the scenario is an anomaly. In fact, we hardly eat blueberries at all.

Per capita consumption in America runs about 12 ounces of fresh berries per year. (For comparison, we eat 6.5 pounds of strawberries per person each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Much of the annual blueberry production is funneled into industrial goods like jelly, jam and other processed foods. Specialty dog food brands even utilize blueberries today, which may be exciting, but we’re waiting for that wine. We’ll shout when it hits shelves.