Fresh berries are the highlight of summer. Nothing beats the satisfying “pop” of a fresh blueberry, the decadence of a juicy strawberry, or the sweet-tart symphony of a ripe blackberry. But that tiny box of raspberries in the grocery can set you back a pretty penny, and organic berries — well, you’d better brace yourself.
Why are the jewels of the produce world priced like semi-precious stones? We spoke with Valerie Lott, vice president of product business management at Driscoll’s, to learn about the business of berries. Here's what you’re paying for when you shell out for those supermarket gems.
Location, Location, Location
As it turns out, berries are fairly finicky about where they can be grown and under what conditions. "Berries like the same topography and climate that humans do," says Lott. "Where berries thrive and grow well, so do humans. So you get a lot of population pressure in these areas where traditionally berries have been grown, and that of course increases cost of land and materials and makes resources more finite."
What's more, Lott explains, unless berries are grown in a climate-controlled environment, they can only survive the summer in places where the weather is mild. That means that they can only be raised in certain times of the year in certain areas in the U.S. — often in parts of the country where land is already at a premium. "It'd be great if we could grow fruit in areas like the heartland of the U.S., but unfortunately, the heat and humidity during the summer months is just too much for berries to withstand," Lott says.
(Harvest) Time Is Money
Whether or not your berries are hand-picked also plays a role in the price you pay at the grocery store. Hand-harvested berries cost more because the price of human labor is higher, but some distributors believe that that cost is a worthwhile tradeoff for the overall quality of your fruit. Machine-harvested berries are more often bruised or damaged, which means that their shelf life is shorter and their freshness is compromised.
For precisely this reason, some suppliers — Driscoll's included — make machine-picking the exception rather than the rule. Still, others are increasingly relying on mechanized farming practices. Write your supplier to find out whether your berries were hand-picked, or purchase them directly from a local market where a farmer can tell you exactly how they were harvested (and where they're often less expensive).
Berries Need to Chill Out
After harvesting, berries need to remain chilled at every step along the supply chain to maintain their ideal freshness — and that comes at a price, too. “That cost is shared by shippers and retailers alike,” Lott explains. “Because obviously retailers need to also ensure the cold chain management in their distribution centers, and then ultimately in their stores as they sell directly to consumers.”