Ripe in the field - Santa Maria, California One of the great annual events of spring is the beginning of the domestic berry season. The true starting point has blurred because of global production, early producing varieties and weather protection technology (like hoop houses). Mother Nature also plays a huge role — too much rain slows production down; too much sun brings all the fruit on at once; a late freeze burns off the blossoms or even kills the plant, which can put whole growing areas out of business for a season. Here at the Whole Foods Market produce buying office in Watsonville, California, we are surrounded by miles and miles of strawberry, raspberry and blackberry fields — Watsonville is the last of three major growing areas for berry production to come online in California. But the large and small berry producers here make up only part of a dynamic and ever-changing industry that spans the U.S., springing up (pun intended) everywhere and sometimes in some very unusual places.
Pollinating blueberry blossoms - New Jersey The All-American Berry A native to North America, blueberries have long been the dominant berry produced on the east coast. Late April/early May was the traditional starting point for the domestic season but demand has driven variety and growing area experimentation which has given us earlier starts just about every year. It's a good thing too — western hemisphere production starts to wane right around March 1st and by mid-month the fruit has lost a lot of its flavor. In the last few years, Florida production has started to appear around mid-March to close the gap.
Loaded bushes - California As we move through April, other states start to produce, with tiny amounts coming out of almost all the southern states. The Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and California all get into the commercial production game (with additional small scale production almost everywhere). The trickle generally becomes a flood in May and June and as we approach the 4th of July, we see the seasonal peak in some of the largest blueberry producing states (New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon and Washington). A fun way to measure the progression of the domestic season in blueberries is to follow the size of the container. When Florida is the only producing state, the package is a paltry 4.4 ounces, or as my son Aidan would say: "enough for me but not for Delilah" (his sister). As the season progresses and production becomes more regionalized, the containers get bigger, and bigger still. It is not unusual for peak season blueberries to be sold in containers holding as much as four pounds.
Duke Variety prior to ripening - Michigan There is immense diversity in blueberry varieties and, with them, varying flavor and condition characteristics. Even within a single variety (like Duke, O'Neill, Newey, South Moon, Elliot or the grand-daddy of the Southern blue, the Croatan) you will see variations depending on growing conditions and post harvest handling. Nevertheless, there are some universal tips for selection and storage:
Consistent size is extremely important when selecting blueberries. Blueberries can be as small as a pea or as large as a quarter, but variation in size in the same package is not desirable because chances are you will have fruit that is over and under ripe in the same package.
The fruit should be uniformly dark blue. Color variation is generally a sign that you will have a sweet berry followed by a tart zinger.
Don't just look at the top of the package — blueberries are surprisingly hardy but they are still a berry and like apples, one blown up blue can ruin all its neighbors. No matter the size it is always a good idea to look at your container from all angles to make sure there are no damaged or crushed berries.
A firm berry is best — this requires opening the container at the store but is absolutely necessary. The fruit should have some give but should not be soft or have a watery feeling.
The best test is taste. Like any fruit blueberries can be cosmetically perfect and still taste slightly off. If you don't see berries out for sampling, ask a team member to rinse off a few and try them — better yet, let your kids test (my young daughter Delilah can tell me all I need to know with a squinty face). Blueberries freeze best of all berries, so when you see that huge container at peak harvest remember that a bag of frozen blueberries makes a great snack later in the summer. A Strawberry Story
Fruit in the field - Watsonville, California Meanwhile, out west a similar build up is happening as the rainy season ends, coastal sunshine boosts strawberry production and we are off to the races. Florida plays a short but critical role in getting us started but the season begins in earnest when both coasts start producing. Strawberries grow in very narrow climate conditions (the "baby bear porridge window" — not too hot or too cold) so the majority of commercial production in the U.S. is concentrated on the California coast. The first major area to come online is in and around Oxnard, California — an agricultural community on the northernmost tip of the Los Angeles basin. This area has the advantage of location and average temperature over its two northern counterparts. Four to six weeks following Oxnard's mid-February start, the central coast growing areas in and around Santa Maria, California start adding to the total number of acres producing. Two to four weeks after Santa Maria, the northern California town of Watsonville comes on line (the largest of the three with 14,000 acres in production).
Strawberries "hanging" prior to harvest- Watsonville, California Strawberry production increases are tracked informally by produce geeks using "The Berry Holiday Method." The first major berry holiday is Valentine's Day. Generally miserable for domestic production, V-day serves mainly as a reminder that the rest of the holidays should be better. By Easter, Oxnard should be in full swing, Oxnard and Santa Maria by Mother's Day, and all three districts by the 4th of July. Like blueberries, strawberry producers use different varieties according to when and where they grow berries. Some of the more common varieties are San Andreas, Monterey, Palomar, Portola and Albions. In addition to these are dozens of super secret proprietary varieties. All are slightly different and with strawberry selection most of the same rules apply as with blueberries (particularly the ones regarding color and size). Another important point about strawberry care: it is generally a good idea to get your berries out of the container as soon as you get them home. Strawberries are heavy and can bruise each other when squeezed into a container. You should also wait until you are just about to serve strawberries to wash them — excessive moisture can cause the fruit to decay. Raspberries and blackberries are also available during "berry season" but the production tends to be inconsistent from week to week (the time for raspberries is later in the summer). Make sure you look out for berries produced locally as some of the sweetest and best come from your own back yard.
Bloom time (Blueberries)- South Jersey Many thanks to Dana Peters, Bob Flood and Josiah Leet for contributing to this post.