Berries have gone from a seasonal treat to a year-round staple, as global trade makes it possible to have fresh fruit year-round, new packaging and shipping technologies keep the berries fresh longer and an increased focus on the perceived health benefits of berries fuels a rise in demand.
Per capita berry consumption in the U.S. grew steadily from 4.9 pounds to 8.8 pounds between 2000 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And blueberries, increasingly touted as a an antioxidant-packed “super food,” have soared in popularity with no signs of slowing. Overall U.S. blueberry consumption rose from 73.1 million pounds in 2000 to 409.1 million pounds in 2012. Per person, consumption grew from .26 pounds to 1.3 pounds in the same period.
While berry consumption has grown year-round, the fruit is often still a summer season specialty on restaurant menus, as Datassential detailed last year. Last summer’s seasonal berry treats ranged from strawberry lemonade at Applebee’s, Dairy Queen and Krispy Kreme to the Double Berry Mojito Shaker at T.G.I. Friday’s to Strawberry and Banana Cream Pie Pancakes at IHOP to Strawberry Shortcake at Bob Evans. IHOP also just launched two new items, the Blackberry Lemonade Criss-Croissant and the Strawberry Rhubarb Criss-Croissant; both start with croissants baked in the waffle iron, which are then folded, filled and topped with the fruit.
Wendy’s gave berries a big boost with the 2011 launch of its seasonal Berry Almond Chicken Salad, which became a popular summer favorite and led to the company’s purchase of 2 million pounds of strawberries and a million pounds of blueberries, the chain said in 2013. Last summer, the chain built further on the berry’s popularity with the launch of the Strawberry Fields Chicken Salad.
For “Bluberry” Bill Mortellite, the season is busy, brief and sweet. He learned the ins and outs of berry growing around the family lunch table, and when he was 12 his grandfather told him the Hammonton, N.J. farm, first named Buffalo Bill Farms when it began some 60 years ago and later changed to Blueberry Bill Farms, would go first to his father and then to him.
“Cranberries and blueberries, those are the two native North American fruit crops,” he said. “It upsets me when people say ‘American as apple pie,’ because apples were brought in from Europe. Blueberries now, you can’t get more American than that.”
The 250-acre farm becomes a hive of activity for four to six weeks every summer, after the summer start of the harvest. Blueberry season moves from state to state, starting with Florida earlier this month. New Jersey’s season starts June 15 and peaks for about a month before tapering off by late July.
During his youth, the harvest was the time multiple generations of the family came together to work, he said, and the combination of agricultural activity and togetherness made it the most fun he had all year. These days, hired hands and friends of his college-age kids who are studying agriculture come to work the harvest.
His company sells about 1 million pounds of blueberries a year, or 95% of the crop, to Driscoll’s. That still leaves plenty for local restaurants that tout the local berries in their salads, desserts and smoothies, as well as retailers and families looking for a pick-your-own experience out in nature. Princeton University buys some each year, as part of its buy-local initiative. And there’s even a local winery that some years buys as much as 200,000 pounds. The farm also holds back and freezes part of the harvest each summer, and sells the frozen fruit all year.
Production is up in the U.S. and abroad — Mexico’s berry industry grew from nothing to about $1 billion in annual sales in the past 20 years, and it’s still growing. “And Georgia used to be the peach state — now it’s the blueberry state,” he said. Mexico, Chile and others are competitors but they also keep the supply up during the off season. “You can tell from the containers, they’ve gone from being pretty small to pints, quarts and even two pounds,” he says.
Much has changed at the farm since his grandfather’s day, he says, most notably the drip irrigation system that saves the family business about $40,000 a year in diesel fuel costs and results in better quality fruit because plants aren’t being doused daily from overhead. Sensors in the ground monitor the situation in each field and lets workers know whether watering is needed.
Blueberry Bill Farms also has equipment for mechanical harvesting if its needed, but most years the regular crew of 170 pickers returns for the short but lucrative season. Crew members make about $1,000 to $1,500 a week during the season, he said. “The same guys come back to us every year, so we don’t have to teach food safety again and again.”
Are your restaurant guests or grocery store consumers clamoring for berries? Are you creating new menu items to feed the craving? Tell us about it in the comments.
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