The cloudy, cool spring may have given some local growers the blues — literally if their crop is a distinctive berry native to North America.

The cloudy, cool spring may have given some local growers the blues — literally if their crop is a distinctive berry native to North America.

"It's gonna be a way above-average year for blueberries," says Chuck Burr, owner of Restoration Farm on Old Highway 99 outside of Ashland.

After planting 2,000 blueberry bushes last year, Burr plans to open his farm at 9 a.m. Saturday, July 17, for its first U-pick season. Next door, at Blue Collar Berry Patch, Bob and Jolanta Ehrlich couldn't be more pleased.

"We put 'em up to it, actually," says Bob Ehrlich.

Despite a 25-year history in the blueberry business, Blue Collar still can't meet the demand of U-pick customers, some of whom arrive before sunrise to claim their share, says Ehrlich. Blueberries are $2 per pound at Blue Collar, $2.95 per pound at Restoration Farm.

Blue Collar's crop, says Ehrlich, suffered from a late frost but likely will be open for picking on the same day as Restoration Farm's. The season typically is a month to six weeks long.

Blueberry season at Restoration starts with its biggest berries — Dukes — followed by Draper, Legacy and Liberty, says Burr. The farm's perennial bushes play an important role in its diversity and permaculture, adds Burr, also executive director of Southern Oregon Permaculture Institute, which teaches a variety of courses in agricultural sustainability and restoration.

The USDA-certified organic fruit will play the starring role at a Tuesday cooking class in Ashland. Planning the summer's lineup of classes at Allyson's Kitchen, cooking-school coordinator Dawn Smedley recalled her first summer in the Rogue Valley more than a decade ago and its U-pick blueberry outing with her children.

"I indulged so much I almost made myself sick," she laughs.

When Smedley returned to Ashland from Tucson, Ariz., last fall, she could hardly wait to indulge some more. She purchased the season's first farm-fresh berries for $3 per half-pint from Pedro's Blueberries at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market. Pennington Farms also sells blueberries at the Tuesday and Thursday markets for $3 per half-pint.

"You get addicted to that flavor of something that was picked the night before," says Smedley.

Brandon Cunningham, executive chef at Callahan's Siskiyou Lodge, will use Restoration blueberries at Allyson's in several savory dishes, incorporate them into salsa and chimichurri sauce and is likely to adapt them to his prize-winning chocolate torte prepared for this year's Oregon Chocolate Festival.

Delicious and nutritious, blueberries are known for their high levels of antioxidants, which help prevent cell damage. To maximize their benefits, experts say, eat them fresh and uncooked.

"Ounce for ounce, blueberries provide more antioxidants than any other fresh fruit or vegetable," writes author Dana Jacobi in her "12 Best Foods Cookbook."

Choose full, rounded blueberries covered with the white, powdery coating called bloom. Avoid shriveled and leaky berries. At home, store blueberries in the refrigerator and do not wash them until just before using. They'll keep in the refrigerator for five to seven days, or they can be frozen in sealed plastic bags.

If freezing berries, don't wash them before freezing. Wet berries will stick together and get icy. Blueberries will keep in the freezer for up to a year, but like all other frozen foods, it's best to eat them within a few months.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487, or e-mail