Berries are on a sweet roll
Raspberries and blueberries are the chocolates of U.S. produce: everyone's indulgence, whatever their price, and said to be good for you
Virginia Levy of Miami stands in front of the fresh fruit shelf at Norman Brothers Produce in Kendall and almost shovels the stuff into her cart -- blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, big chunks of watermelon. ''I have five boys,'' she says. ``I'll be lucky if this lasts until I can put it in the refrigerator.'' Connie Sol picks up plastic containers of blueberries and raspberries. ''I'm very much into fitness,'' she says. ``These are high in antioxidants. They're very much part of my diet.''
They're not put off by the prices -- $4.89 for 4.4 ounces of blueberries, $6.89 for 6 ounces of raspberries, $11.79 for an oversized quart of strawberries. Berries, today, are the new wonder fruits: candy-like, ultra-convenient, famously healthful and available year round, thanks largely to Southern Hemisphere farmers. The market is so hot that domestic production and imports both are growing and prices are at record highs.
There's a two-year wait for plants from commercial nurseries. And consumer demand? It's so keen that when supplies run short, as they do in April when Southern Hemisphere production falls off, many supermarkets simply shift from 6-ounce boxes to 4.4-ounce boxes without changing their prices.
The health claim of berries has desensitized people to price, overturning decades of experience among berry producers that a 10-cent price hike could drop demand by 40 percent. ''I wouldn't believe it if I weren't living through it,'' said John Shelford, the president of Naturipe Farms, a berry grower and shipper based in Naples. Shelford expects his company's total blueberry crop to be 10 percent higher this year than last, while the yield from Florida growing areas around Gainesville and Lakeland should rise 20 percent.
''It's been astronomical,'' said Henry Bierlink, the executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission in Lynden, Wash.
Among other factors contributing to the berry boom:
• Year-round availability. Berries available only in summer often took shoppers by surprise. Now that they're always in produce departments, Shelford said, ``consumers look for and plan to use them.''
• Globalization. Chile has been the main U.S. source of winter berries in recent years. Its summer coincides with the U.S. winter, and its lower land costs and farm wages offset added shipping costs. Mexico is gaining, however, mainly in raspberries, thanks to new heat-tolerant varieties and cheaper shipping.
• Fast and reliable refrigerated transport. Raspberries picked in Chile on Monday are air-freighted from Santiago to Miami, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles late Tuesday. With refrigerated trucking, they'll be in shopping carts nationwide by late Thursday or Friday. Blueberries mostly come by ship from the Southern Hemisphere. They're cooled to virtual dormancy at 32 degrees two hours off the bush and delivered in 20 to 30 days.
• New varieties. To survive shipping, a blueberry needs durable flavor and a strong outer skin, plus a clean, dry and sealed scar at the point where it was picked. Leaky berries are rotting berries -- everybody's nightmare. The problem is even worse with raspberries, which are thinner-skinned and have tiny picking scars on each of their 100 to 150 little berry bubbles, or drupelets. Plant researchers have also come up with varieties that bear fruit earlier and later in the season and in warmer climates.
• Supermarkets love berries. Produce departments account for 10 percent of sales but an ''inordinately higher'' 16 percent of profits, according to a 2004 article by Edward McLaughlin, a food industry specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. This justifies big supermarket displays for berries that, at $3.99 a box, return about $2 to the store, according to a wholesaler who asked not to be identified.
• The plastic clam. Back when berries came in wooden or pulp-paper boxes, shoppers worried about the condition of berries at the bottom. The plastic wrap made the berries very crushable in shipping and in shopping bags. Enter the plastic clam, which even comes with a shelf life-extending diaper to sop up accidents.
Winn-Dixie and Publix have both seen a spike in demand for blueberries over recent years, but the demand for raspberries hasn't changed much. ''People have definitely started to eat more blueberries,'' said Anne Hendricks, the South Florida spokeswoman for Publix. ``There's been a noticeable increase in sales.'' Publix first uses suppliers from within Florida, then elsewhere in the United States and lastly goes to suppliers in Central or South America, Hendricks said. Debbie Linton, produce buyer for Norman Brothers, 7621 SW 87th Ave., has noticed the berry boom for a year now. ''Our sales of blueberries have increased by 60 percent,'' she says. ``Customers are asking about all the foods that have antioxidants, and they already know about blueberries.''
Fuente Miami Herald