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Versatile blueberries take the cake as Canada aims to export 'nature's candy'

Howard Shimokura holds freshly picked blueberries after plucking them off bushes at Emma Lea Farms in Ladner, B.C., on Monday July 21, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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Howard Shimokura holds freshly picked blueberries after plucking them off bushes at Emma Lea Farms in Ladner, B.C., on Monday July 21, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

WESTHAM ISLAND, B.C. - Four big containers brimming with juicy blueberries headed home with a smiling Jenny Yong, who was pulling her bounty in a wagon supplied by this U-pick farm south of Vancouver.

"I just eat them, and I put some in the freezer," said Yong, who spent three hours collecting the blueberries, which she takes straight, by the handful, never mind cooking, baking or preserving them.

Rebekah Goedbloed of Airdrie, Alta., said her family would be driving home with their hand-picked blueberries from British Columbia, which produces 96 per cent of Canada's highbush blueberries.

"It reminds me of when I was young, doing the same, but with strawberries," said her B.C.-born husband Reuben, as he strolled through the fields with their eight-year-old daughter Pyper and 10-year-old son Koen.

Other blueberry fans who trekked to Emma Lea Farms, about an hour's drive south of Vancouver, decided to buy them there instead because a better-than-average crop this year means the plump blue morsels are now so cheap.

Some pickers were trying their hand at tayberries, a cross between blackberries and raspberries, especially because they have a mere two-week picking window in July compared to the July-to-September, and sometimes October, season for blueberries.

Kevin Husband, who owns the farm with his wife Joanne, said ideal conditions — hot days and cool nights — this year will amount to a huge harvest of about 6.7 tons of fruit from each of their 16 hectares of blueberries.

Husband hires contract workers to pick the blueberries up to mid-August and the rest will be harvested by machine, mostly for processing because the quality won't be up to snuff to ship fresh berries to market.

Besides their versatility in everything from appetizers and main dishes to desserts, blueberries have a shelf life of up to 10 days compared to a couple of days for strawberries and raspberries, while the dainty but delicate tayberries last for just a day and a half.

Blueberries, which are also touted for their health benefits, including high antioxidant levels, are taking centre stage when it comes to marketing efforts focused on getting Canada's highbush blueberries into as many products as possible for consumers around the world.

The blues are popping up in everything from chocolate, powders, wine, juice, purees, concentrates and baking mixes as the industry expands.

Debbie Estell, executive director of the BC Blueberry Council, said product development is continuing to meet consumer demands.

"There are still a lot of markets for us to go into, not only in Canada but outside of Canada," she said from Calgary, where the council was promoting B.C. blueberries with cooking classes for four- to 12-year-old kids — after similar events in Vancouver in Toronto.

"One of the pushes this year is trying to get kids to eat healthy," Estell said, adding the little folks made blueberry soba noodle salad, blueberry turkey burgers and dessert pizza with a tortilla as the base — with blueberries, of course.

In June, Estell, along with federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and his B.C. counterpart Norm Letnick, were marketing the province's blueberries in China, hoping they would be the newest imported fruit headed there after Canadian cherries got the nod last year.

"We've been working on fresh-market access to China for nine years," Estell said. "We have a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government and the Canadian government. We won't have fresh-market access this year, but we're hoping for next year."

In February, B.C. blueberries made their debut at a food show in Dubai, and Estell said a couple of distributors are now setting up there to try to sell the berries dubbed "nature's candy" by the council.

Canada began exporting blueberries to India two years ago, where the fruit is also available frozen, dried and in powders that can be added to tea, milk and yogurt, especially where refrigeration may not be available, Estell said.

Tom Baumann, director of the University of the Fraser Valley's Pacific Blueberry Centre, said research is underway on new varieties of berries and everything from pest control without harsh pesticides to using drones for field surveys and robots for harvesting.

The centre also works with growers, processors, provincial and federal governments and berry groups throughout the Pacific Northwest to promote berries, said Baumann, a professor of agriculture at the university.

"North American growers are working together. It's unbelievable. We're working together and doing advertising campaigns and selling our crop."

When it comes to blueberries, Baumann predicted they're poised to be the top berry compared to ever-popular strawberries as well as raspberries, which tend to get mushy in school lunches.

"Blueberries can last a heck of a lot longer so you can ship them further, they can be processed a longer time, they can be chocolate-covered a longer time."

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