LYNDEN - Whatcom County is poised for significant growth in the blueberry harvest over the next five years, but local farmers first need to figure out why they had fewer blueberries than expected in 2013.
The blueberry crop was the main topic of conversation at the kickoff of the Washington Small Fruit Conference at the Northwest Washington Fair & Event Center on Thursday, Dec. 5. The conference continues Friday with a variety of workshops, all open to the public and geared toward growing and managing small fruit, including blueberries and raspberries.
While the final numbers aren't in yet, this year's Whatcom County blueberry harvest is expected to be less than last year's total of 28 million pounds, said Alan Schreiber of the Washington Blueberry Commission. Next year's harvest is expected to be significantly bigger as new plantings bloom and other factors come into play, possibly producing 35 million pounds locally.
Whatcom County is leading the state in new acres for blueberry production and now has about 5,700 acres dedicated to growing the fruit. Schreiber estimates that by 2019 Whatcom County's crop could be around 62 million pounds, with the state total around 160 million pounds.
Across Washington state, the blueberry industry is already in the midst of a boom: The projected total of blueberries harvested this year is 80 million pounds, up from 18.4 million pounds in 2006.
If this growth continues, Schreiber said it could lead to an oversupply of blueberries, but it's also an opportunity as the industry works to expand its export market, particularly into South Korea and China.
This year's lower harvest was also on the minds of regional growers. Mark Sweeney of the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture spoke about the unexpected yield drop that took place in B.C. and probably in Whatcom County. Many farmers experienced at least a 10 percent drop in yields, with some dealing with an even bigger loss.
Sweeney said what he noticed this year was smaller blueberries as well as fewer berries on each plant. Sweeney said final conclusions haven't been reached yet on why this happened, but he has a few theories, including low pollination levels.
Blueberries don't pollinate well by wind, so growers rely mostly on bees. Sweeney said something happened this year that resulted in fewer visits by bees. Possible factors range from the overall health of the bees being down to a pesticide deterring the insects.
Factors other than bees could be in play: A warmer-than-usual fall season in 2012 may have extended the growing season for some plants, not giving enough time to get to flowering bud stage the following spring. Plant stress, over-cropping and a nutrient imbalance in the soil also could be factors.
Whatever happened to the blueberries didn't appear to impact the Whatcom County raspberry harvest. In 2013 farmers harvested 63.4 million pounds of raspberries locally, the second-highest crop ever and up 9.8 percent from 2012, according to data from the Washington Red Raspberry Commission.
Henry Bierlink, executive director of the raspberry commission, said he expects to see steady growth in the local raspberry harvest in the coming years, a combination of adding a few more acres and improving the yield of the current plants.
"We haven't had as dramatic a story (as the blueberries), but we're continuing to grow as an industry," he said.
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