** ADVANCE FOR USE NOV. 27-30 **Paul Norris checks the growth of a young blueberry plant in a field near Umpqua, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008. During September and October, Norris Farms worked 160 acres and planted 300,000 blueberry plants, giving the farm 380 acres in production as one of the biggest blueberry operations in the state. (AP Photo/The News-Review, Craig Reed) - AP

Umpqua blueberry farmer banks on the future

UMPQUA — While the price for blueberries may have slipped in 2008 from a record high of about $1.50 a pound, the health benefits of the fruit are keeping farmer Paul Norris optimistic about his expansion plans.

During September and October, Norris Farms planted about 300,000 young blueberry plants on 160 leased acres just across the Umpqua River from the main farm.

Norris Farms now has 380 acres planted in blueberries. The expansion makes it one of the top three blueberry operations in the state of Oregon in terms of acreage. And Norris Farms will become one of the biggest producers in the state when the young bushes begin to bear fruit in a couple of years.

"To expand you need to start planning years in advance," said Norris. "We've been aiming for this for years."

Norris Farms harvested 1.4 million pounds of berries this year.

For three years in a row, blueberries earned record prices for farmers at market. But after Oregon blueberries hit records for production, harvest and pricing in 2007, the price fell by about half in 2008, with farmers getting 65 to 75 cents a pound for blueberries delivered to processors.

Supply had overtaken demand for the fruit. But Norris went ahead with his expansion, because he believes blueberries will remain popular with consumers and will even attract more customers now that the store price has fallen. In addition, Norris had plants ready for the field.

Instead of buying plants from a nursery, he had taken cuttings from the farm's existing bushes and planted and raised the cuttings in one of the farm's three large greenhouses. Those young plants were ready to be transplanted.

"I don't think blueberries are going away," Norris said. "The public has had the health message on blueberries for a while now — the information has been out there for 10 years. The baby boomers will keep buying them. The fresh consumption of the berries in the U.S. has gone up dramatically."

Food surveys show that blueberry consumption in the U.S. has risen from 5.1 ounces per person annually in 1978 to 19.1 ounces in 2004. Michigan is the top producer of blueberries in the nation, and Oregon and New Jersey are tied for second.

Production in Oregon in 2007 was 35 million pounds of berries picked.

Steve Erickson, manager of Pan American Berry Growers in Salem, said consumers are purchasing more fresh blueberries, so the increased crop is being consumed.

Bryan Ostlund of the Oregon Blueberry Commission explained that Western Oregon has ideal growing conditions for blueberries. Those conditions and rising prices have resulted in additional acres of blueberries being planted in recent years.

"Cool, mild temperatures in July, generally dry conditions in July and August, and fertile soils are perfect," he said. "If we have a good, strong yield in 2009, the state could easily surpass 50 million pounds."

Norris, who is also an emergency room doctor at the Cottage Grove Community Hospital, knew early on about the discovery of blueberry health benefits by reading medical publications. The fruit is high in the compound anthrocyanins — that is an antioxidant found to reduce the risk of some cancers, enhance memory and generally improve various functions in the body.

Other research reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the berries are rich in fiber and vitamin C, and low in calories.

That type of knowledge helped Norris and his wife, Sandy, decide to plant blueberries on what they originally considered their hobby farm back in the mid-'80s. In addition to expanding the acreage through the years, the farm's fields and processing plant have also recently been inspected and officially met food, employee and environment safety standards. That certification allows Norris Farms to process its own fruit and ship either fresh or frozen berries directly to its markets.

"We're pretty proud of that," Paul Norris said of the certification. "You have to meet some pretty high standards, but it allows you to ship internationally from your shop.

"Being a physician, it's important to me to have a certified plant that's clean and safe," added Norris, who is also a six-year member of the Oregon Blueberry Commission and is on that organization's research and food safety committees.

With more certified blueberries on the way following the farm's expansion, the processing plant will be even more busy during summer's harvest.

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