‘It is time to support your local farmer’ — Whatcom berry season shaping up to be difficult

As Whatcom County berry farmers start gearing up for the harvest season, many are already bracing for a double-whammy of problems: A smaller crop and low prices.

Currently it’s the bees doing much of the work, as the raspberry and blueberry plants start blossoming in more than 13,000 acres across Whatcom County. The raspberry harvest is expected to start in early July, and that’s when farmers will get a better idea of how much weather damage those cold winds in February did to the plants.

It’s not looking good, particularly for the new plants.

On a recent Save Family Farming podcast, Berry farmer Randy Honcoop told his son, Dillon, that his first-year field was 100 percent damaged and has already had to cut down some of those plants. The more established fields on his farm have sustained less damage, but one of Whatcom’s older raspberry varieties, Meeker, was hit hard, he said.

Berry farmer Jon Maberry expects Whatcom County’s raspberry harvest to be down 20% to 30% compared to last year. That, combined with the expected low prices, may mean operating losses that result in some farmers reducing acres dedicated to raspberries or getting out of the business altogether.

“It is time to support your local farmer. We are going through a tough time,” Maberry said.

Being a heartier plant, it appears blueberries have sustained less damage, according to a May 8 article in the Lynden Tribune

With the raspberries Whatcom farmers do manage to harvest, they may not get a good price for them on the open market. Prices are currently low and the market is slow, said Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission.

If the low prices remain in place and the harvest is small, it would mean the third straight difficult season for Whatcom County berry farmers. Last spring a sudden increase in U.S. raspberry imports created so much supply that there were fewer buyers during the summer harvest.

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Maria DeGollao sorts raspberries on a berry harvester during the first picking of raspberries on the Ehlers farm nearly Lynden in June 2013. As Whatcom County berry farmers start gearing up for the harvest season, many are already bracing for a double-whammy of problems: A smaller crop and low prices. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Wind did the real damage

While many Whatcom residents will remember February for its snow and ice, berry farmers remember the wind. Randy Honcoop said the prolonged, cold winds dried out the raspberry canes.

“The canes were very lifeless,” Honcoop said on the podcast.

The February freeze also was bad timing for the plants. January was a relatively warm month in Whatcom County, so the plants were already starting to come out of the dormant stage when February arrived, Honcoop said.

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Raspberries in a field on Birch Bay Lynden Road west of Lynden in July 2011. As Whatcom County berry farmers start gearing up for the harvest season, many are already bracing for a double-whammy of problems: A smaller crop and low prices. Raspberry farmers have been hit especially hard. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Increased supply leading to lower prices

Bierlink believes that prices currently remain low because more raspberries from Mexico are being diverted to the U.S. It’s difficult to prove, however.

“Getting the data verified and trade measures put into place is time-consuming, expensive and subject to trade politics,” Bierlink said in an email.

It is unclear at this point if there will be a flood of imported raspberries in May and June, like what happened last year. Bierlink isn’t expecting it to happen.

It appears that last year was a special circumstance where extra cold storage raspberries in Europe were dumped into the U.S. market, he said.

Maberry agreed that it is difficult to say how much raspberries will be imported into the U.S. this spring, but he believes raspberries coming from Europe and Mexico will continue to keep U.S. prices depressed.

The blueberry market appears to be going through a similar situation this summer in terms of supply.

According to a website Fresh Fruit Portal, blueberry arrivals from Mexico hit a five-year high in April. The same website also notes that California’s blueberry harvest is expected to be significantly larger than last year.

That much supply could also keep prices low for Whatcom County growers.

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Raspberries and blueberries from Barbies Berries at the 2014 Northwest Raspberry Festival. As Whatcom County berry farmers start gearing up for the harvest season, many are already bracing for a double-whammy of problems: Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Addressing the problems

A board member on Washington Red Raspberry Commission, Maberry said they are working on several approaches to improve the market for Washington growers:

Legislative legwork: While many other products are getting attention in the current trade war climate, the commission is reaching out to federal agencies, such as the U.S. Commerce Department, about what they see as a major imbalance in berry trade.

It’s possible the berry industry could see some action from the federal government if there is a major imbalance because of its recent aggressive trade stance.

The Associated Press reported on May 16 that President Donald Trump’s administration has launched 162 investigations into into product dumping and other trade issues — a 224% jump in the number of cases compared to the total the Obama administration pursued in the same time in office.

“They’re much more aggressive in every way,” said Mary Lovely, a Syracuse University economist, in the AP article.

Getting into school lunches: Maberry said they have approached the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the idea of getting raspberries into domestic school lunch programs. It’s a long process that might take a couple years, but Maberry said it’s a great opportunity to market the benefits of raspberries to students.

Marketing/product expansion: Maberry said a goal of the state commission going forward is to market the Washington raspberry as a better choice to American consumers than overseas products. He believes the quality is higher and American farmers are held to higher safety standards.

“That is a message we are going to start pushing more,” Maberry said.

Creating value-added products is another option. Local raspberry farmers recently partnered with Grace Harbor Farms to make a raspberry smoothie called Whatcom Red. The smoothie was introduced earlier this month and is currently at local Edaleen Dairy stores and the Green Barn in Lynden.

Grocery retailers with stores in Whatcom County already are expressing interest in carrying the product, said Grace Harbor Farms co-owner David Lukens.

This is Grace Harbor’s first non-dairy product — the only ingredients are raspberries, pear syrup and and filtered glacier water, Lukens said. While the product represents a good opportunity, helping the raspberry industry also is a factor.

“It is humbling seeing how hard they work,” Lukens said, referring to the berry farmers.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.