Berries are the fine wine of fresh fruits and vegetables. Touted as healthful, appealing to the sophisticated palette and commanding a premium price, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are being held in ever higher regard by nutritionists, cooks and farmers.

In his best-selling “New Diet Revolution,” the late Dr. Robert Atkins declares, “Berries are best!” Diet guru Dr. Nicholas Perricone says, “Berries are an ideal and delicious ... alternative to sweets.”

Atkins and Perricone focus on berries’ relatively high nutrient content and low sugar. However, berries are jam packed with additional health benefits. UC Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr said recent attention has been on their potential role in the prevention of cancer and heart disease.

“These fruits are high in phytochemicals, including phenolic compounds such as flavonoids,” Zidenberg-Cherr said. “Some studies have reported that berries possess a high level of antioxidant activity, which has been linked to the levels of the phenolic compounds in the fruit.”

Despite their healthfulness, the cost of berries, relative to other fruits and vegetables, may deter some consumers.

“The average person won’t pay $3.50 for a small box of berries,” said University of Arkansas fruit breeder John Clark at a recent California blueberry meeting.

However, he noted, many people seem to be willing to spend $3.50 on a pack of cigarettes or a box of cookies.

“The percentage of people with low incomes who eat berries will increase when they become more educated about the product,” Clark said.

California growers are counting on consumers to buy an even more pricy product. They are aiming to harvest their berries when fruit from other parts of the country – where the bulk of U.S. berries are grown – are not available. Through the winter months, 4.4-ounce containers of berries grown at mild Central Coast and Southern California farms fetch $6 or $7 at supermarkets and $4 to $5 at farmers’ markets, according to Santa Barbara small-farm advisor Mark Gaskell.

“Wholesale prices for organic blueberries have not been below $30 since October and are now $47 (for a 3.5-pound flat),” Gaskell said. “And the buyers just say ‘more.’”

In 1980, Americans on average ate less than a fifth of a pound of blueberries each. By 2004, their consumption had grown to half a pound, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Strawberry eating has skyrocketed from less than 2 pounds per person per year in 1980 to nearly 5.5 pounds in 2004. (Berry consumption is still very low compared to many fruits, such as apples at 43 pounds per person per year, and oranges at 90 pounds per person per year.)

The limited but growing consumption of berries offers excellent opportunities for small-scale farmers. Although most U.S. blueberries are now produced in the Pacific Northwest and in the Northeast, and appear on the market during the summer months, UC research shows that some of the Southern highbush varieties, native to the southeast United States, can produce top quality berries in California in springtime, before the market is flooded with fruit from traditional sources.

However, growing berries presents thorny challenges that aren’t limited to the sharp spikes on some varieties’ canes. Berries are expensive to establish, require intensive soil pH monitoring, have labor-intensive harvest needs and are tricky to ship.

Many of the challenges are being tackled by UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors up and down the state of California. A California blueberry research pioneer is Manuel Jimenez, small-scale farm advisor for Tulare County. Eight years ago, he began researching varieties at the UC Kearney Research and Extension Center near Parlier that over time have numbered 52 different types. Each year he conducts one of the best-attended field days at Kearney, drawing speakers and growers from all over California, many parts of the U.S. and overseas. Jimenez has isolated four or five blueberry varieties that, he says, “aren’t perfect” for the San Joaquin Valley, but getting close.

Growers at the May field day were invited to inspect the blueberry planting and taste the fruit to find varieties with berries that were large, flavorful, light in color and crisp, attributes that are popular with consumers. Other characteristics growers look for are early ripening, in order to hit the most lucrative marketing windows; berries presenting themselves at the outside of the plant for harvesting ease; and stems that readily break off when the fruit is picked, leaving a small, dry scar.

A section of 35 blackberry varieties growing at Kearney presented growers with additional options. Still more delicate, blackberries are generally even harder to find at grocery stores. However, stepped up production in Mexico is getting produce buyers more familiar with finding the unique texture and taste of blackberries in their neighborhood market’s produce department.

“Take year-round availability, add antioxidants and what you get is success,” said fruit breeder Clark.

Other UC research on berries

Specialist Don Merhaut, based at UC Riverside, has collected three years of data from growing blueberries near Irvine and in Riverside. “In Irvine, plants are evergreen, in Riverside, they drop their leaves from one year to the next,” he said. One surprise, he has found that gophers tend to eat only specific varieties. “I don’t know how they know which ones are which,” he said.

Farm advisor Gaskell, who works with small-scale farmers in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, is screening varieties to find types that are ready to harvest when the prices are at their highest. “At the Central Coast, our growers are picking from October, through the winter, up to June,” he said. Gaskell is also looking at the use of hoop houses to bring the crop into production at the most opportune times and has additional field trials with raspberries, blackberries, currants and gooseberries.

All aspects of raspberry and strawberry production have become part of the research portfolio of Mark Bolda, UCCE farm advisor in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties. Irrigation, pruning, pest and disease control and fertilization are all areas where local farmers need his support. Bolda has co-authored a report of sample costs for growing fresh market raspberries.

Postharvest specialist Carlos Crisosto, based at Kearney, is comparing the shelf life and fruit storage needs of different blueberry varieties. In addition, he is conducting trials to determine whether controlled irrigation enhances the concentration of healthful antioxidants in blueberries.