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AGRICULTURE

Blueberry fields forever

Farmers in the state are planting more of the crop as they find the climate gives them an edge on the calendar.

September 26, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Blueberries. They're not just for the summer anymore.

Well, they haven't been for a while, thanks to imports from Chile and other southern climes. But now California is in the game.

As little as three years ago, the number of acres planted in blueberries in the state was so small that it didn't register with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today there are an estimated 4,000 acres of commercial blueberries in the San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Ventura.

"There's some real money to be made," said Ben Faber, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Ventura.

The wide-ranging blueberry plant -- part of the family that includes common ornamentals such as azaleas and rhododendrons as well as cranberries -- can thrive in California. The region's climate gives them, and their growers, a natural advantage. Farmers in coastal California can pick them from January through April, months earlier than the harvest in other states.

"It's not unusual to get $20 to $35 a flat" for that early season fruit, about double what summer fruit commands, said Craig Underwood, a Somis farmer who is one of the county's blueberry pioneers.

So Andy Waters, a sixth-generation Ventura County farmer, is pulling up 200 acres of lemons in Moorpark and planting $400,000 of blueberries.

"It's an exciting market," Waters said.

Blueberry acreage in Ventura County is expected to double to more than 600 over the next year as Waters and others embrace the crop.

California blueberry producers recorded sales of about $33 million last year.

Although that's a tiny fraction of the $32-billion California farm economy, the state is becoming a player in a national business long dominated by Midwestern and Northeastern states such as Michigan and New Jersey.

And the blueberry business is booming. American farmers produced 80% more of the berries last year than in 2004, for $498 million in sales, according to the Department of Agriculture.

During the same period the number of planted acres jumped 19% to almost 53,000.

Good flavor and a healthful reputation are behind the boom.

Blueberries are especially potent sources of anthocyanidins, antioxidant chemicals common in blue and purple produce that may help prevent heart and urinary tract diseases and stop memory loss. Blueberries are also stuffed with ellagic acid, which might protect against cancer.

"We have not yet had good intervention studies to actually prove that this happens, but studies of animals and some epidemiological studies suggest that these phytochemicals are good for you," said Kathy Hoy, a nutritionist at the Produce for Better Health Foundation in Wilmington, Del.

"It happens that blueberries have high amounts -- which is why they are considered a superfood."

For Roland Zimmermann, a Redlands radiation oncologist and blueberry lover, the flavor trumps any health claims.

"I would discourage making one's diet centered on blueberries, as a variety of fruits and vegetables gives better balance in one's daily requirements for vitamins and minerals," he said.

Zimmermann eats blueberries because they taste good.

Faber said that's why locals should appreciate the availability of homegrown blueberries, especially in the winter, when many stores stock imports.

"What they ship here from South America can't compare to what comes out of a berry patch in Ventura just 24 hours earlier," he said.

As California farmers plant the fruit, they're finding that it can be "a persnickety crop," with a tendency toward root rot that takes a level of care beyond the citrus and avocados that had grown in the areas where the blueberry is taking hold.

"There is a learning curve," Faber said. "Farmers have to understand that you can't treat it like a lemon."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

$2.17

Farm price per pound in U.S. in 2006, up from $1.93 in 2005

$498 million

Value of crops in U.S. in 2006, up from $342 million in 2005

52,820

Acres harvested in U.S. in 2006, up from 48,710 in 2005

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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