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California Farmers Get the 'Blues'

Ventura County and other warm-weather regions have a new stake in blueberries.

September 03, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

In the high-stakes gamble to create Ventura County's next lucrative cash crop, Will Gerry hopes he's about to hit it big.

The fourth-generation farmer, who has made his money growing such staples as lemons and avocados, is among a handful of local growers now looking to the tiny blueberry to bring in the big bucks.

Once largely the domain of cold-weather locales, blueberry production has steadily moved to sunnier climes, with Florida and Texas turning out tons of the fruit each year.

Now comes California, where hundreds of acres of blueberries have been planted in recent years from San Diego to the Central Valley. In Ventura County, about half a dozen growers have planted a total of 50 acres, delivering their first marketable crop earlier this year.

New growers continue to join the effort, including Gerry, who is in the midst of putting in one of the county's largest plantings at his Santa Rosa Valley ranch near Camarillo.

"I like the challenge of discovering something new," said Gerry, who by November plans to have 11 1/2 acres staked in blueberry bushes. "In this day and age, with the world economy the way it is and the Southern Hemisphere able to produce everything we produce, you've always got to be looking for niches and new opportunities."

California's blueberry crop is still relatively small.

Last year, North American growers pumped out 129 million pounds of fresh berries, led by New Jersey with 35 million pounds and Michigan with 21 million pounds.

California growers produced only 1.4 million pounds. But that's more than half a million pounds better than the previous year and a vast improvement from two years ago, when production was so small it didn't even register on an annual census conducted by the North American Blueberry Council.

Though new to the market, California's blueberry growers have a significant advantage over competitors in other states: They can produce fruit months before traditional spring and summer harvests in the rest of the country.

As a result, California growers have set out to capture that early season period from February to June, when low supply translates to higher prices. Blueberry prices last year ranged from as much as $14 a pound in February and March to as little as 80 cents a pound during the summer.

"California is going to be a good supplier of the early season berries, and they will have a nice market niche," said Mark Villata, executive director of the North American Blueberry Council.

In agricultural regions such as Ventura County, those niche markets are more important than ever. Land and labor costs continue to increase while foreign imports eat away at profits from mainstays, such as lemons and avocados.

To survive, county growers have been forced to turn to alternative crops. In the process, they have pioneered new markets.

Strawberries once were considered an experimental crop in Ventura County, but today they are the county's biggest cash crop, generating nearly $300 million in sales last year.

More recently, a few local growers have focused on raspberries, which made the county's list of top 10 crops and generated nearly $20 million in sales.

Now energy is being devoted to building a blueberry market.

The effort has been led by farm advisors with the University of California Cooperative Extension program, who began conducting trials in 1996 on how best to grow blueberries in the county. The trials took place at the historic Faulkner Farm near Santa Paula, a 27-acre open-air laboratory dedicated to farm research and exploring new growing methods.

Advisors have evaluated 34 varieties and passed their knowledge on to growers.

"I learned like everybody else that blueberries can't be grown in California," said Ventura-based farm advisor Ben Faber, who oversaw the trials and held a workshop recently at Faulkner Farm for interested growers.

"The key was showing that it could be done," Faber said. "Once we got the ball rolling, it took on a life of its own."

Still, the blueberry business is not without risks.

Start-up can cost an average of $15,000 an acre to prepare the soil and plant crops. Then it can take up to three years before farmers see their first commercial harvests.

Veteran farmer Craig Underwood, one of the first in the county to take the blueberry plunge, said there are other worries as well.

County growers still don't know which blueberry varieties will be most successful or what kind of yields the plants will generate, Underwood said. And there's always the possibility that the crop won't hit the market window local growers are aiming for, he said.

That said, Underwood has planted four acres of blueberries at his Somis ranch and intends to put in six acres more in November. Next year, he plans to add 10 to 20 acres of blueberries, marketing his and other growers' fruit under his newly created Pacific Blues label.

"I think it has a lot of growth potential," said Underwood, who will sell to wholesalers as well as customers at farmers markets and two produce stands in the county.

He even plans to launch a pick-your-own operation, a place where customers can do some old-fashioned berry-picking.

"You always have to keep trying something new," Underwood said. "If you're not taking risks and looking for new opportunities, chances are you are going to slip backward."

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