North Carolina in the summertime is home to multitudes of wild blackberries ripening on spindly, thorny bushes along shrubby fence lines and roadways, but in recent years, the berries have crept into commercial growing operations.
Blackberries first started to be seriously commercially grown in Henderson County around 2010, when a number of growers joined the only grower at the time, Marvin Lively, who had been growing blackberries for almost a decade before that, according to Henderson County Extension Director Marvin Owings.
Currently, the county has a little more than 100 acres in production, spread across 13 growers.
“What got some of these other fellows interested was when Ryder came in,” Owings said. The company was looking to grow in the county to gain a foothold in the region, because the cooler mountain climate would mean a harvest window later in the year, when regular supplies from places like Mexico, California and Georgia typically dwindle.
Steve Dalton, of Fruit of the Spirit Orchard on Dalton Trail Drive in Hendersonville, has been growing blackberries since 2010, and now has 12 acres in production.
He decided to get into it for a number of reasons, namely because it was a different commodity in Henderson County, but also because the fruit has substantial health benefits, and there’s a little nostalgia of picking wild blackberries in years past. But the advantage of a late-season window of mountain-grown berries also played a part.
The first year, he started with 5 acres and had a very productive year, breaking the production record for now-defunct berry supplier SunnyRidge. In 2011, he added five more acres and has been slowly adding since then, trying to find the varieties that fit best on his farm.
Since then, he’s had mixed results. The cooler weather is a double-edged sword with spring freezes, hailstorms and damage from cold winters that can cut into each year’s crop. Dalton said he has hit his production goal three out of the last six years.
Mike Pack Jr., farm manager at M&M Berry Farm, said the farm is in its third year growing blackberries, and currently has about 14 acres. It’s a different crop to grow, and even in the winter, there’s no break from it, he said.
“The demand for blackberries has increased tremendously,” Owings said, thanks in part to the health benefits.
According to the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association, blackberries are a good source of Vitamin C, antioxidants and folate; they are virtually fat and cholesterol free and are good sources of fiber.
Blackberries are doing well in Henderson County, said Dr. Gina Fernandez, Extension specialist, growing well at all elevations and with growers producing for several different companies.
Fernandez was approached by SunnyRidge in 2006, to see if growers in the region could start growing blackberries to extend the growing season to later in the year, and from there it started gaining traction.
So much traction that Fernandez was approached to help plan the 2015 International Rubus and Ribes Symposium, a gathering of top scientists and experts — “anybody that was anybody”— to share knowledge and the latest developments in blackberries and raspberries.
That symposium, held last June, brought those top minds to Asheville and showed off the emerging industry in the region and was “a real honor,” Fernandez said.
“They’re doing great,” she added, of blackberries in the region. “It’s a great addition to the mix of berries or fruit in the mountains, and in the state, for sure.”
But blackberries come with their fair share of difficulties, too, and one of the biggest is labor.
“First of all, they’re extremely labor-intensive,” Dalton said. “I grew 200 acres of apples years ago, and these 12 acres of blackberries demand a lot more labor and initial investment than 200 acres of apples do.”
The hand-harvested small berries takes a lot of help, which is hard to find, he said.
Many growers, Dalton included, are looking at the red-taped, expensive H2-A visa program already in use in the county by some growers. An H-2A program allows for temporary, non-immigrant foreign workers to come to the country for season agricultural work, but growers must provide housing and transportation for the laborers and navigate considerable red tape.
Pack said M&M used H-2A labor last year, but got away from it, as it didn’t work very well for their operation. This year, they’ve moved to a crew leader, and have had success in finding sufficient labor, thanks in large part to on-site housing.
But, “most of the growers that have started using the H-2A workers have been pleased,” Owings said.
Growers are also experimenting with blackberry varieties designed to be producing berries later in the year, like one called Prime-Ark 45 Dalton is growing, designed by blackberry breeder and University of Arkansas professor John Clark.
Dalton said the Prime-Ark 45 seems to be an “every-other-year kind of berry,” and is thorned while other varieties aren’t. It doesn’t seem to be as productive, but it does hit the late harvest window, producing berries all the way to frost.
The colder weather that provides a good market window for Henderson County blackberries can also cause problems, too, with spring freezes, hail and cold winters. Dalton has also seen damage to the cane, or stem, of the plant during the coldest parts of the winter, and is experimenting with other varieties to see which can best resist that damage.
Pack uses tunnels to cover his blackberries, helping him to control temperature and water and keep off hail and other precipitation.
“Once the plastic goes up, our concerns go down,” he said.
Also, Fernandez said the market may be getting saturated, and unless consumption of blackberries increases, she doesn’t know if the market can handle much more production. But “blackberries have been catching on,” she said.
She sees an opportunity for growers in local markets, and while it may be too hot this time of year for blackberries to have the same success with pick-your-own operations like county apple growers have seen, there’s “great potential” in the local markets, where buyers can find blackberries that were grown locally.
Another challenge is the fickle market itself, especially the price of blackberries. Right now, growers report, prices are low. Pack said they’re holding out hope that the price will go up when they pick, later this summer and into the fall, when the price should increase thanks to supplies from warmer climates running out. With the prices they’re seeing now, he said, they’ll be skeptical about planting more blackberries.
The fruit is exceptional, people love it and brokers say they can’t get enough, yet the price drops, Dalton said.
“I once heard a farmer say, ‘Don’t listen to what somebody says, listen to what they do,'” he said.
[Source:- Blue Ridge]