Number of county growers is down to 68, from 100+ once
WHATCOM — County raspberry production was down 3% in tonnage this year compared to 2019, but the more pertinent statistic may be the drop in number of growers staying in the business.
There are now 68 commercial growers in contrast to more than 100 in years past.
The Lynden-based Washington Red Raspberry Commission released its numbers from the summer harvest just ahead of an Oct. 28 board of directors Zoom meeting.
Of the decline in number of growers, WRRC executive director Henry Bierlink said, “It’s been moving that way for a while.”
Whatcom is dominant in the statewide group. In fact, there are now only seven red raspberry growers in Washington outside of Whatcom County, and they account for less than 1% of the overall berry production in the state.
Total tonnage in 2020 was 63,674,250 pounds for the county, 64,190,466 for the state. Both are down 3% from last year.
It is the lowest production level for both the state and the county since 2015, which was an unusually off year. Production has at times been in the mid-70-million-pounds range.
The state commission continues in a federal trade litigation battle that essentially contends Mexico and other countries are bringing raspberries into the United States at less than their costs of production, a practice known as “dumping.” The process of gathering data and proving fault is costly and drawn-out.
Commissioners have been talking about taking action since 2017 and in December 2019 committed to spending at least $600,000 this year with a law firm in Washington, D.C., analyzing what’s going on on the berry-imports scene.
“We are currently engaged with the International Trade Commission in a fact-finding investigation that will produce the needed data to evaluate the potential success of a trade case primarily focused on protecting our puree and juice markets against the by-products of the Mexican fresh raspberry industry which have created unsustainable pricing for the majority of our growers,” Bierlink wrote in the November WRRC newsletter.
Virtually all of Whatcom’s raspberries end up frozen for use in food processing, rather than fresh.
Also at the meeting:
• The commission board set the 2020 raspberry assessment rate at 2 cents per pound, the same as it was in 2019.
This is expected to raise about $1.28 million toward a 2021 budget of $1.84 million, meaning about $550,000 must be drawn from reserves.
Main spending will be on marketing, production research, health research, and supporting an endowed Washington State University position in plant breeding. But the biggest commitment is up to $750,000 on the “fair trade” issue.
• Wild Hive, headed by Allison Beadle, is the marketing firm leading the way for Washington raspberries in food service and bakery partnerships as well as strategic planning for the future.
Beadle talked about a four-step planning process that would align the industry with current market trends and help set priorities to pursue.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there,” Beadle said.
• The board has decided to explore a new assessment policy whereby Individual Quick Frozen packs — highest quality berries fetching highest market value — would pay a higher percentage of the assessments, puree a somewhat reduced percentage, and juice an even lower rate. This requires changes to state-mandated policies which cannot be changed until 2021. The idea is being discussed in a three-month effort to update WRRC’s Strategic Plan.
• The commission annual meeting for all grower members will not be part of the Washington Small Fruit Conference this year. Instead, it will be a week later at 1 p.m. on Dec. 9, virtual via Zoom.
• Veteran Lynden grower John Clark was selected the fourth recipient of the annual Industry Service Award. He will accept it at the Dec. 9 meeting.