Berry growers are reeling from the unprecedented heat wave in late June. There was clear damage to the early raspberry crop resulting in a loss in volume and downgrades in pack styles. Impacts on the canes producing the 2022 crop are not yet understood but there will be some impact. Blueberries have similar, but not as severe, concerns.
On a recent Farming Show episode, Paul Sangha of Mountain View Berries spoke to Dillon Honcoop, communications director at Save Family Farming, about the impacts the early summer heatwave had on our berry farms, specifically blueberries.
Likening the extreme heat to an oven, Sangha said, “Our crops, fruit especially, just aren’t acclimated to the kind of heat we experienced.”
He noted that the kind of damage crops experienced during this heatwave can happen at temperatures of low to mid 90’s, so when temperatures skyrocketed to 100-110 F, the fruit started to dry up and raisin on the bush. Stressed blueberry bushes reacted by shutting down and absorbing the water back out of the fruit. “It’s blistering, the skin peels back, the maturity of the fruit deforms, and they have a lot of different defects.”
With the raspberry harvest already started, there was a lot of concern and hope that blueberries would be okay after the highest temperatures passed, but fruit at all levels of development was hurt. “It takes a lot more effort to make that blue color come into formation, and the weather really has to cooperate to have that happen,” explained Sangha.
He said they are now in a “wait and see” phase. Though the visual damage that can be seen will stay that way, there are hopes that what is left out there will be good quality food to harvest and get out to people to enjoy.
“Heading into this before the heatwave, it looked to be a strong quality year. Everyone felt pretty good about it. Now, with the things that have happened, I think we still have great quality food out there, just the volume is much lower. We’re looking forward to getting the crop that’s there out to people. We think they’re still really going to enjoy it.”
So how much lower volume can we expect? Paul explained further, “If you can see, visually, 10% damage in a field, that doesn’t necessarily always mean that it’s going to be only 10% as it travels. There’s so many effects of it as it gets down the chain and to the consumer in the end.”
Most blueberries are machine harvested, allowing some opportunities to get rid of the damaged fruit up front, but there are some big challenges of keeping the damaged fruit from harming the remaining good fruit as it moves through processing. Working backwards from that, he said farmers are putting in large efforts to protect that fruit.
“There are so many elements of this working together. When you are trying to get the highest quality, but you have a very small quantity to work with, the challenges are just overwhelming at that point,” he said. “We were right at that finish line. We could see the finish line, and we were almost there. Now, sadly in a lot of places in our area, there’s people that just won’t get there.”
He went on to say that while it’s still too early to know for certain, there may be farmers that will just have to walk away from some areas of their fields.
Sangha said our farmers need the support of their community. “If you see a farmer out there, they’ve already gone through enough over the years, so definitely just give them a pat on the back. They could use it.”
Berry growers are working with other crop and livestock farmers throughout the PNW region to seek support to mitigate losses. The amount of damage points to the need for federal help.
The Ag Directors in WA and OR are engaged with the congressional delegations from both states to outline the best path to provide this relief.
A disaster program created under USDA’s Farm Service Agency to support wildfire and hurricane damage to farms in 2017 appears to be the template for building a support program. https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/disaster-assistance-program/wildfires-and-hurricanes-indemnity-program/index
Farmers are encouraged to keep good records to demonstrate their losses. We are hopeful that the opportunity to mitigate your losses will be available by this fall.