Under the warm touch of the summer sun, Oregon berries put their sugars into full production. At night the cool air allows relatively little respiration and few of the precious sugars are lost. Colors deepen. The berries ripen slowly and are picked only when absolutely ready.
No place else on earth produces berries quite this good, according to Bernadine Strik. And since Strik began work as an OSU Extension specialist and berry crops research leader, no place else on Earth produces berries as abundantly as Oregon.
The consumer market for Oregon berries exploded in the mid 1990s when blueberries and blackberries were rated as one of nature’s best sources of antioxidants, offering healthy benefits for the cardiovascular system along with luscious taste and purple tongues. OSU researchers stepped in to help growers meet the new demand.
When Strik first walked through rows of commercial blueberries, she saw wide-open spaces between plants, some as broad as five feet.
Yields were good. But Strik figured they could be better with tighter spacing, particularly in young fields. She set out to demonstrate that blueberry bushes planted closer in the row produced the most berries per acre, even when fields are mature. The narrowest spacing had yields almost 100 percent higher than the standard spacing. With this simple innovation, Oregon blueberry growers now produce the highest yield per acre in the world, in an industry worth $67 million a year in Oregon.
Blueberries have eclipsed strawberries as Oregon’s signature berry crop. Oregon still produces superior strawberries with excellent color and great flavor. But in 1955, when bobby-sox teens provided much of the harvest labor, commercial Oregon strawberries covered 17,500 acres, in contrast with about 1,900 harvested acres last year. The marketplace recognized superior quality; in wholesale processed fruit markets Oregon berries fetch nearly 20 cents per pound more than California berries.
And what about blackberries? There’s more to enjoy beyond wild roadside hedges. In 1956, George Waldo, a berry breeder with the U.S. Department of Agriculture working with Oregon State College horticulturists, developed a superior blackberry and named it after Marion County, where the berry had been extensively tested and where most of the world’s marionberries are still grown.
The marionberry grows on long trailing vines with fruit that is considered to be tastier and juicier than other blackberries. There’s still a drawback, however, and the cooperative breeding program continues with the goal to create blackberries that are thornless. In addition, Strik and her colleagues are developing organic production systems for both blueberries and blackberries. Their work is helping Oregon berries be the best in the world; Oregon’s climate does the rest.
Pigments that give berries their distinctive red or blue color not only entice us to nibble, they also can help keep us healthy. We can savor the flavor and know that we’re countering free radicals with every bite.
It’s become common knowledge that berries are a healthy food choice, but it’s easy to forget why, and the terminology can be confounding. What are free radicals and why do we want to fight them? What makes berry color so important?
A free radical is a molecule formed by a weak bond between two atoms that leaves it unstable and missing an electron, a process known as oxidation. The free radical attacks another molecule to steal an electron, thus creating another free radical and starting a chain reaction that can lead to damaged cells in the body.
Free radicals form as by-products of daily activities as simple as eating and breathing, and most can be handled routinely by the body. But air pollution, herbicides, cigarette smoke, and other environmental forces reinforce their production and damage to the body.
An antioxidant, on the other hand, is stable and can contribute an electron to a free radical without becoming unstable itself. It’s thought that when antioxidants neutralize the effects of free radicals, they help counter cancer, heart disease, and the effects of aging.
Berry pigments, called anthocyanins, are antioxidants and have chemical substances called polyphenols. OSU researchers in food science and technology and at the Linus Pauling Institute have isolated and concentrated the pigments and their polyphenols to measure antioxidant levels. The big questions now are about absorption and how much we should consume of antioxidant-rich foods. Will there ever be a minimum daily requirement?
“We’re a long way from knowing how much to eat,” said Ron Wrolstad, a distinguished professor emeritus of food science at OSU. Only a small percent of anthocyanins are absorbed by the body—less than one percent. Most are excreted in urine in four to five hours. Absorption of nutrients by beneficial microflora in the colon can vary drastically from person to person and even within one person at different times.
Nevertheless, conventional wisdom holds. “My philosophy is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis,” Wrolstad said.