Behind the Bear Lake raspberry craze

LAKETOWN – They are sweet, small and come in different shades of red. Often mixed in shakes or sold from roadside stands near the shores of Bear Lake, their harvest is celebrated with an annual festival every August. Ask anyone around Garden City and they will tell you: Bear Lake raspberries are simply better than their counterparts.

“People know a good thing when they see it,” said Craig Floyd, a commercial raspberry grower in Laketown.

Bear Lake raspberries are so tasty that imposters have wiggled into the picture, Floyd claims, and that buyers have to be careful to be sure they are getting the real deal. He said there is one company that sells raspberries not grown in the Bear Lake Valley, even though the business is named Bear Lake Raspberry Company.

“They don’t say ‘We are selling Bear Lake berries,’ but they just say, ‘Bear Lake Raspberry Company, when would you like them delivered?’” Floyd said. “People assume because of the name that they’re getting Bear Lake raspberries.”

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The bold claim that Bear Lake grows better berries isn’t just some local bias, either. It’s science.

Brent Black, an agricultural sciences professor and fruit specialist with Utah State University said there are multiple reasons the Bear Lake raspberry is high quality. The first reason is that unlike the those found on the shelves at the supermarket – the ones grown in California or Mexico – the Bear Lake raspberry isn’t meant to last a long time after being picked.

For a supermarket raspberry, quality is traded for a long shelf life.

“The fruit doesn’t taste as good while its fresh, but it stays edible and marketable for a long period of time,” Black said. “A lot of the Bear Lake growers are growing older varieties that have a really nice flavor and quality right after they are picked, but they don’t keep very well.”

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But Black said that isn’t the only reason. Take a Bear Lake raspberry plant, grow it in California soil and the fruit still won’t be as sweet. The elevation of the Bear Lake Valley – and the lake itself – helps keep temperatures cool, providing an ideal climate to produce sweet berries.

When temperatures are hot, Black said, fruits utilize more of its sugar to survive. When it is cool, the plant keeps the sugar stored.

“Anytime you get to that elevation the temperatures are going to be cooler in the summer,” he said, “and then the lake moderates the conditions even more.”

The Bear Lake raspberry is as iconic as the lake’s striking blue water, but for a few years in the early 2000s, it almost disappeared entirely. The plants were growing short and producing little fruit. The fruit that was produced became weak and crumbled. Almost every plant was affected.

“Everybody’s plants went into decline about the same time,” Black said. “They brought in a virologist that worked for the USDA. He came in and ran some tests and discovered that it was this virus.”

The virus, known as raspberry bushy dwarf virus, was transported from plant to plant by pollinators, ruining every raspberry patch along the lake. The only solution was to tear out the plants and start over.

“Once a plant gets a virus it doesn’t get better,” Black said. “It doesn’t have an immune system to fight it off. Once the plant has the virus it goes into steady decline and never really recovers.”

Many of the growers decided not to replant. New raspberry plants, according to Black, take up to four years to produce any fruit. Some of the farmers were nearing retirement anyway. For others, it just wasn’t worth it.

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That’s when Floyd got into the raspberry game. He and others started to plant in Laketown, several miles south of Garden City, where the vast majority of commercially-grown raspberries were once produced. Now only one commercial grower remains in Garden City and Laketown has become the center of Bear Lake’s raspberry production.

Floyd said 90 to 95 percent of the raspberries grown on his five acres go into Chad’s Raspberry Products, where it is made into jams, jellies, salsa, ice cream and other foods.

“We love to produce them,” he said, “and see people smack their lips over them.”

Black said that because of the valley’s unique climate, there isn’t another fruit that would thrive like the raspberry.

“Bear Lake has got a really short growing season and it gets really cold in the winter,” he said. “You can’t grow peaches up there and some of the other popular fruit in Utah. Raspberries have been the crop for them.”

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1 Comment

  • Patti Sleight July 3, 2020 at 8:23 am Reply

    My father-in-law was aSleight from Paris Idaho. He grew darker raspberry that so great. Can they be purchased somewhere up there, and when are they On? His came on around the 4th of July, and again around September.

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