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Originally published October 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 31, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Blueberries — Washington's blue gold

Not only are blueberries good for you, they're healthy for the state's economy, too — a $30 million crop that's getting bigger all the time.

Seattle Times staff reporter

BURLINGTON, Skagit County — Fingers flying, the pickers strip the last of this year's blueberries from bushes that are already flaming red from the turn of the season. And what a doozy it's been: another record-breaker for blueberries.

State agricultural statistics show what any produce buyer could tell you: There's no end in sight to the blueberry boom. The humble blueberry has soared in a decade from relative obscurity to stardom, becoming the state's second-most-valuable crop per harvested acre last year after cherries.

"They sell like crazy," said Jim Sinegal, president and CEO of Costco, which struggles to keep blueberries in stock.

"We buy them from every part of the country and every part of the world, and we can't get enough of them. They would easily be the biggest item in our produce department if we had the ability to get what we need."

The state's blueberry crop surged to $30 million in 2006, compared with $16 million just two years ago — and a meager $7,769 a decade ago. Acreage harvested has more than doubled to 3,400 acres, and some experts predict another doubling in five years.

The reason?

"We call it the health halo," said Dave Brazelton of Fall Creek Farm and Nursery in Lowell, Ore., the world's largest blueberry nursery, where the wait can be up to 18 months for new plantings of the hottest varieties.

Brazelton has watched blueberries boom as reports of the berry's health benefits have multiplied. From improving urinary-tract health to packing a powerful punch of antioxidants, blueberries are often touted as a superfood.

So growers are enjoying both rising production and prices, a double marvel that in agriculture is like defying the law of gravity.

A lot going for them

And no wonder, says Chris Martin, owner of Gourmet Trading in Los Angeles, one of the top blueberry marketers in the U.S.: Berries ship well by air, sea and land. They are great fresh or frozen. They're good for everything from sauces to baking to snacking straight from the basket. And the capper: Kids like them.

"My wife bought some unsweetened cranberry juice, and it's nasty," Martin said. "You can force it down because it's good for you, but as far as giving it to the kids? Forget it. Pomegranates? They're a lot of work."

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True, Martin is paid to hawk blueberries. But he doesn't think this is yet another food fad, like kiwis in the '80s. "I don't think there's been a produce item that has sustained the sort of growth blueberries have, I doubt there is one that beats it in the last 50 years," Martin said.

Besides, blueberries have the boomers on their side.

"Many people are looking for healthier things to eat, and I don't think that is going to go away anytime soon," Sinegal said.

A family business

Richard Sakuma knows his berries. And for now he doesn't see any limit to the little blue's potential. Except perhaps labor: His farm depends on some 300 workers to bring in the berry crop. But some newer varieties can be harvested by machine.

At Sakuma Brothers Farms outside Burlington, the family grows more than 500 acres and 10 varieties of blueberries so they can harvest later than most growers, who typically harvest from July until late summer.

With Mount Baker sailing serenely above, Sakuma's workers hustle the last fresh, local blueberries of the season into plastic boxes, destined for hotels and restaurants willing to pay the highest prices all year.

Sakuma Brothers Farms is still a family operation, in business more than 85 years. The Sakumas have weathered not only bugs and markets but the internment camps of World War II. Richard Sakuma's grandfather came from Japan in the early 1900s and sold berries at Pike Place Market. The family lost their farm on Bainbridge Island when they were sent to camps in Montana, Idaho and California.

But a white family in the Skagit Valley held onto the Sakumas' property there and gave it back to them after the war. From those acres, the Sakumas have grown to a 1,100-acre operation.

Sakuma Brothers first planted blueberries in 1989, before many others had even thought of it. Today the farm is putting in thousands more blueberry bushes every year, and still sees no end to the demand.

"I don't know where the limit is," Sakuma said. "So far, we know we don't have enough."

There's competition, though. Blueberries are grown all over the U.S. and in Canada, South America and China.

And now, for the first time, even Eastern Washington.

Alkaline soil had always made Eastern Washington a no-go zone for blueberries. But suddenly the desert is blooming with them. Farmers figured out that dosing their irrigation water with a little acid can make blueberries happy there.

So while only a fraction of the state's blueberries come from east of the Cascades now, it won't be long before that changes, said Alan Schreiber, director of the Washington Blueberry Commission.

"There has been a stampede to plant blueberries," he said. "The only reason there is not more is because they are out of planting stock."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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