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Oregon strawberries ready for early harvest

Still an important and iconic Oregon crop, more strawberries headed for fresh market

The unofficial start to Oregon’s agricultural growing season is about to arrive. The earliest commercial harvest of strawberries in the state since 2005 should commence by the weekend thanks to a warm spring that has pushed the crop season forward a couple of weeks. While Oregon’s strawberry industry is just a fraction of what it once was, the high quality fruit remains an important part of the agricultural landscape with steady demand from processors and growing demand from fresh market consumers. As a result, the Oregon strawberry retains its iconic status.

“Our strawberries are a symbol of the coming summer,” says Laura Barton, trade manager with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “Everyone gets really excited when fresh strawberries come into season because they are so delicious and colorful.”

Strawberry production in Oregon will never return to its glory days, but the industry has seemingly stabilized over the past decade. Last year, about 2,000 acres were harvested resulting in 21.3 million pounds of production valued at $15.2 million. This year’s projected production is roughly the same. That’s similar to the past several years, but down from the 3,100 acres harvested in 2003.

If it were just a matter of quality, Oregon strawberries would reign supreme. They are picked absolutely ripe on the vine, they are red both inside and outside the fruit, and they have a wonderful texture after canning, freezing, or drying. However, a combination of competition and costs has eroded the state’s strong showing as a strawberry producer. Oregon ranks third in the U.S. when it comes to production, but remains far behind berry giants California and Florida, producing less than one percent of the nation’s strawberries. Foreign competition from Mexico is also a major factor.

There appears to be a slight shift in how Oregon strawberries are marketed. Traditionally grown mostly for processing, the increased demand for local berries has prompted some growers to consider selling to the fresh market. A decade ago, only 7 percent of the strawberries harvested in Oregon were for the fresh market, responsible for 15 percent of the crop’s value. Last year, 16 percent of the volume harvested was for the fresh market, responsible for 33 percent of the value. The emphasis on production of fresh strawberries has been driven by demand and price. In 2012, the price paid to the grower for berries destined for processing was 58 cents per pound. For fresh, it was $1.39 per pound.

“If you go way back in history, there were a lot of Oregon strawberries grown for the fresh market, but it evolved into production for processing,” says Barton. “The types of berries we grow, the flavor is amazing but the fruit tends to be very fragile. As a result, they have been more likely to be frozen, pureed, and concentrated, and are in high demand for sauces, jams, and ice cream.”

In the past, most growers have conceded the fresh market to California, with the exception of a few local producers who sell at farmers’ markets and farm stands, and who offer their own u-pick fields. But the trend is shifting, and it’s now more likely that the strawberries in the field won’t always be headed for a processing plant.

“It would surprise me if the trend toward fresh strawberries didn’t continue simply because Oregon’s population growth is expected to increase greatly,” says Bernadine Strik, extension berry crops specialist with Oregon State University’s Department of Horticulture. “Often, fresh production is tied to population growth. With consumer consciousness of local production and the quality of berries Oregon grows, there is a lot of potential for that fresh berry percentage to go up.”

Strik says growers are always looking for ways to stay competitive and many are trying to sell as much fruit as possible to the fresh market. To their disadvantage, many Oregon strawberry varieties are better adapted for processing and won’t stay in a store for very long.

“If you take them to a farmers’ market, they usually need to sell that day,” says Strik. “In a local grocery store, they can stay overnight in a refrigerator, but probably need to sell the next day. Existing cultivars have a limited market window. Most varieties provide fruit in June.”

Growers have exploited, to the best of their ability, the limited fresh market with existing varieties. But different varieties are now being introduced, many of them from California, that provide fruit from May until October. Because of Oregon’s climate of warm days in the summer and cool nights, these California varieties still pack great flavor and good color when picked vine ripe. Consumers still see them as an Oregon berry.

A cooperative strawberry breeding program between OSU and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service still emphasizes berries for processing, but there is more interest now in developing a fresh market strawberry variety that originates from Oregon. That will become even more valuable if those new varieties have a high yield and what Strik calls “high picking efficiency.” Labor remains the biggest cost factor in keeping Oregon strawberries competitive, especially those that need to be picked ripe off the vine for the fresh market.

Oregon strawberry growers, whether they produce berries for processing or fresh market, generally support the idea of bringing more fresh strawberries to market.

“That means helping growers understand what they need to do in order to grow Oregon strawberries that will get to the consumers in a less fragile shape,” says ODA’s Barton. “We hope to work with the Oregon Strawberry Commission on some grant funded activities that might include educational workshops for growers on what types of berries to grow for fresh, how to handle them, the value of cooling them quickly out of the field, and other important factors. This is being driven by the huge consumer demand for fresh berries.”

In the meantime, consumers can always enjoy frozen Oregon strawberries or value-added products that include the great taste of the Oregon strawberry year around. They should also get ready to enjoy an early start to what could be a month long love affair with the fresh, just out-of the field Oregon strawberry.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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