Record year for Whatcom County raspberry harvest

Raspberries in a field on Birch Bay-Lynden Road west of Lynden, Friday morning, July 11, 2014.
Raspberries in a field on Birch Bay-Lynden Road west of Lynden, Friday morning, July 11, 2014. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

It turned out to be a banner year for the Whatcom County raspberry harvest, with local farmers setting a new record.

This summer Whatcom County farmers harvested 68.7 million pounds of raspberries, topping the previous record of 66.4 million set in 2011, according to newly released data from the Washington Red Raspberry Commission.

Statewide, the raspberry harvest totaled 72.5 million pounds, which is a record for Washington.

The Whatcom County harvest total came as a surprise to Henry Bierlink, executive director at the raspberry commission. Last winter, a couple of late-winter cold snaps damaged some plants, so the expectation was that quantity would be lower than the previous year. Bierlink said a few factors may have contributed to the rebound: More acres were used than previously estimated to grow raspberries, weather conditions were ideal for growing and some new varieties outperformed the Meeker, a variety commonly used in Whatcom County.

It’s also possible that some of the damaged plants were able to rebound because of the summer weather, which was generally dry but not too hot.

It made Bierlink wonder how big of a harvest local farmers would have had without the winter damage.

“This summer was about as perfect as it could get,” he said.

Other factors worked in the industry’s favor this year, he said. While insect damage is always a concern, it wasn’t as pressing an issue this year. The number of farm workers was stretched thin this year, but local farmers were able to find enough for the peak harvest period, which usually lasts about six weeks.

It’s rare for Whatcom County raspberry farmers to have a good year in both quantity and quality, but that happened in 2014. Harvested raspberries generally fall into three categories: The best are slated to be individually quick frozen for a variety of products. The next two levels of berries are used for juice and purée products. Bierlink estimated about 40 percent of the harvest was sold at the highest grade, up from a typical harvest of about 30 percent.

Bierlink expects a slow increase in plantings in the coming years, with the limiting factor being available land. Raspberries need a certain type of soil to thrive, he said, that is becoming more difficult to find locally.

Heading into the winter, Bierlink said the farmers are hoping for a gradual cooling of temperatures. Hard freezes before or after the dormant period can damage the plants.