The Great Huckleberry Supply Crunch
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- To the uninitiated, huckleberries might conjure up memories of Huckleberry Finn or Huckleberry Hound. But for Anna Baumhoff, the tart-sweet fruit has provided her livelihood for three decades—and with demand soaring as supplies dwindle, she’s starting to question how long she’ll last. “On a daily basis, I wonder what I’m doing in this crazy business,” Baumhoff says. “It’s a Wild West show.”
Prices for huckleberries have almost doubled in the past two years, to as much as $17 per pound, as more people discover the fruit just as extreme heat in the American West has made for weak harvests. Last summer, Baumhoff spent more than $125,000 buying every berry she could—some 7,500 pounds—and she fears that still may not be enough. “Our website is going crazy,” she says.
Most huckleberries come from public lands in Idaho, Montana, and Washington, where pickers seek patches of knee-high bushes with bright green leaves and oodles of the smooth, purple fruit.
Gathering huckleberries was once a bucolic activity for recreational pickers who mostly competed with each other or the occasional bear. In the past two decades, though, commercial sales have exploded, sparking sharp price increases for the fruit, which is related to the blueberry but typically smaller, with a more intense flavor. And efforts to cultivate huckleberries have proven largely unsuccessful because the wild habitat—subalpine forest slopes with just the right mix of soil, sun, and shade—is difficult to replicate.
Word can travel fast about a bountiful huckleberry patch thanks to a Facebook group that has swelled to nearly 10,000 members and has been growing as much as 20% per year. But global warming has made it harder to find berries in large quantities, says Langdon Cook, an author of books about wild foods. “The erratic weather patterns have made foraging in general, and huckleberry picking in particular, more of a wild card,” says Cook, who has a favorite spot in the mountains of Washington that he and his daughter call “huckleberry heaven”—though he won’t reveal its location.
During peak growing season, just a few weeks in late summer, hundreds of thousands of dollars change hands every night in a market that looks increasingly like something run by a drug cartel. Pickers plop the berries into buckets that they hand off to drivers, who transport them by the truckload to buying stations where gun-toting brokers fork over cash and then resell the fruit to jam and jelly producers.
“I haven’t heard of anyone shooting each other over a huckleberry patch … yet,” says Malcolm Dell, head of the International Wild Huckleberry Association, which grew out of a group at the University of Idaho that studies the fruit. Dell estimates the commercial huckleberry market has grown to some 3 million pounds annually, with a total value topping $50 million last year. But he says squabbles among various groups about who should get to pick the fruit and how it’s harvested threaten further expansion. “The huckleberry is becoming a quagmire,” he says.
That’s bad news for Baumhoff, whose mother started Homemade By Dorothy in 1986 to sell jam she made from wild huckleberries in her Boise, Idaho home. Baumhoff took over the business in 1992, and now she makes almost two dozen huckleberry-themed products.
These days, she’s grappling with supply constraints similar to those faced by almost every business in the U.S. She’s paying more for everything she buys, it can take months to get certain jars and bottles, and Covid-19 has forced some distribution centers to shut down. Worse, it’s harder than ever to find workers to help with cooking, packing, and shipping even as her sales surge. Typically, she employs as many as 15 people, but this year she’s had to make do with 11.
Baumhoff’s sales are headed toward $500,000 this year, vs. about $300,000 in 2020. She’s sold more than 7,500 jars of her best-selling jam this year, up 40%, going through almost two years’ worth of huckleberries. That’s put a big dent in her frozen reserves of more than 20,000 pounds, and she fears she may not be able to replenish that supply next summer, forcing her to turn down several new wholesale accounts. “Nobody is stocking this stuff anywhere in the world,” she says. “It doesn’t work that way.”
In September, Baumhoff boosted prices: An 11-ounce-jar of huckleberry jam now runs $12.75, up from $9.95. She hoped the increase would reduce demand, but she’s selling more than ever as competitors exit the business because of the rising prices. “Sales haven’t dipped one iota,” she says. “And I keep getting hit with more orders.”
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