Perspectives Online

For bramble growers, the future is berry bright

Diane Ducharme is part of Cooperative Extension efforts in forming a bramble team to bring a buyer and growers together.
Photo by Dave Caldwell

A North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist and agents are cultivating bramble growers with the emergence of an apparently eager buyer for North Carolina-grown blackberries and raspberries.

In 2006, North Carolinians grew perhaps 150 acres of blackberries, with production concentrated in western North Carolina, said Dr. Gina Fernandez, associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Cooperative Extension small fruit specialist. Fernandez is also a blackberry and raspberry breeder.

That’s when the berry picture began to brighten as SunnyRidge Farm Inc., a Winter Haven, Fla., grower, packer and shipper of blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, expressed interest in contracting with North Carolina growers to produce blackberries.

Fernandez estimated that growers added 50 acres of blackberries in 2007. They would have added more, said Diane Ducharme, Extension area specialized agent for commercial small fruit and vegetables in Henderson, Haywood and Buncombe counties, but there was a plant shortage, and growers couldn’t get all the plants they wanted. Fernandez expects acreage to increase by at least 50 more acres in 2008.

Ducharme and Fernandez are members of an Extension bramble team formed as it became apparent that SunnyRidge’s interest in North Carolina berries presented an opportunity for the state’s growers. Other members of the team are agents Jeremy Delisle, Mitchell County, and Jean Harrison, Buncombe County.

SunnyRidge, which supplies grocery stores with blackberries, raspberries and blueberries, already buys blackberries from farmers in Mexico and Georgia, Fernandez said. She added that Georgia production ends in early July. Blackberry production in the cooler climate of western North Carolina typically extends to mid-August, so the company hopes to extend the season with North Carolina blackberries.

Ducharme recalled that SunnyRidge first contacted her and other Extension agents early in 2006. Company officials told the agents they were interested in contracting with North Carolina farmers for the eventual production of 200 acres of blackberries and 400-to-500 acres of raspberries.

“What we have is a market coming to us,” said Ducharme, adding that SunnyRidge is willing to sign contracts with growers before they begin producing berries. Blackberries are a perennial crop, and it takes 18 months to 2 years from establishing a planting to producing good yields, Ducharme said.

Ducharme and other members of the bramble team organized several meetings with potential growers and SunnyRidge officials, while Fernandez and Dr. Charles Safley, Extension economist, prepared a blackberry budget.

According to that budget, the cost of getting into the blackberry business is high, nearly $19,000 per acre to produce, harvest and market berries. But blackberries are a high-value crop, and the budget estimates that mature plants can make a grower as much as $9,000 an acre.

Interest in bramble production was apparent in September 2007 when farmers gathered in Lincoln County to form the North Carolina Commercial Blackberry and Raspberry Growers Association.

At the same time, both Golden LEAF and the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission are providing funding to support bramble research.

Golden LEAF has provided funding that will aid Fernandez as she works to breed new bramble varieties for North Carolina and determine the best bramble production practices for the state’s growers. Fernandez said Golden LEAF and SunnyRidge provided funding for blackberry and raspberry variety trails. Fernandez established raspberry variety trials in 2006 at Biltmore Estate in Buncombe County and on farms in Mitchell and Yancey counties.

She is interested particularly in extending the growing season for raspberries by using row covers, mowing plants to delay production and growing plants in tunnels. Using row covers helps warm the soil and give plants an early start, leading to production earlier in the season, while cutting back plants delays production, and growing plants in tunnels can provide enough protection from cool late-season temperatures to extend the growing season.

She’s also working with Safley, the economist, to develop a raspberry budget and has released a new red raspberry variety called Nantahala. Nantahala produces berries late in the season and has excellent flavor, although yields are not as high as some other varieties. It’s the first raspberry variety from Fernandez’s breeding program.

And in a separate development, agricultural research station superintendents, led by Jeff Chandler, superintendent of the Sandhills Research Station in Jackson Springs, successfully applied for a $160,000 grant from the Tobacco Trust Fund for irrigation and trellis equipment for bramble research at the Sandhills station, the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury, the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Fletcher and the Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs.

Fernandez said the research stations want to be at the leading edge of irrigation and trellis system technology, and the funding should help them achieve this goal.

Fernandez said the state’s climate is particularly favorable for blackberry production, while raspberries favor the cooler temperatures found in western North Carolina. Cautioning that the market for blackberries and raspberries does have limits, Fernandez said North Carolina production can expand considerably before meeting those limits.

—Dave Caldwell