While a drop in the bucket in terms of produce sales dollars, organic rhubarb continues to attract consumers in early spring with a sense of nostalgia and curiosity. And for retailers seeking more promotion-friendly spring items, rhubarb manages to satisfy, despite its low volume/dollar realities.
This spring, retailers and consumers can look forward to an excellent crop of organic rhubarb. The Pacific Northwest experienced a cold winter season this year and rhubarb likes it cold. Producers are reporting great yields and quality, despite a few hiccups in climate patterns.
Organic rhubarb season is short and quick, with the Pacific Northwest’s rhubarb season starting this month and continuing through June. According to Diane Dempster, who oversees the Farmers Own label for Seattle based Charlie’s Produce, the first harvest of rhubarb should occur this week.
Living Rain Farm, located in Mount Vernon, Washington, is one of the growers that Dempster has worked with for over ten years. The farm is one of the country’s leading commercial producers of organic rhubarb and Dempster says they are “reporting excellent quality and flavor.”
Only certain climates pockets, like the ones found in the Pacific Northwest, can accommodate rhubarbs specific growing needs. Rhubarb requires a cold dormancy period to intensify flavor. “If dormancy requirements are met and a cool spring follows, vigorous, healthy, and rapid growth are sure to occur in early spring,” Dempster said. Cold weather also builds the deep crimson red color, a special and expected characteristic of rhubarb.
Despite unseasonably warm weather in the region to start the year, “February became rather cold with a consecutive freezes which stimulated crop dormancy at the very last minute,” said Dempster.
According to John De Vries of Living Rain Farm, dormancy is generally defined as about three weeks or more of between 28-40 degrees, which is exactly what the area received, with cool yet slowly rising temperature required for optimal conditions. The early spring was a bit too cold and some of the early emerging leaves were damaged by late freezes; however, when cool spring weather stabilized, the second leaves sprouted vigorously, resulting in premium quality and minimal damage, Dempster said.
Consumer demand for organic rhubarb remains steady on a slight upward trajectory, Dempster said, with many discovering rhubarb the same way they learn about most items these days - social and food media. Retailers are adding to the excitement by providing information and recipes, but the majority of consumer knowledge comes from food influencers, magazines, food TV, social media and cookbooks.
Retailers, Dempster says, “are in luck this season as organic rhubarb is going to see once of its best seasons yet.” That is a great send-off for Dempster as she heads into retirement, following over 30 years as a liaison to small growers in the region. Dempster will be remembered as one of the industry’s most passionate specialists in the rhubarb category and having spent a significant amount of time helping growers learn about certification, and finding the right sales outlets for certified products.