Rhubarb is a staple vegetable in many gardens and farms. The plant itself dates back thousands of years in Asia and has been popular in New England since the early colonial times. The tart, stalk vegetable is a favorite in spring pies, but is also used to make jams, jellies, preserves and chutney.
Demand for the vegetable remains strong, but availability is unable to keep pace. When plants die out, they are not being replaced and the plants themselves, once considered hardy, are susceptible to soil diseases including Phytophthora root rot.
Nourse Farms in Whately, Massachusetts, a small fruit nursery, consistently sells out of stock by February of each year. The operation – that once sold more than 40,000 rhubarb divisions a season – usually sells between 10,000 and 12,000 divisions per year.
“We used to plant it on heavier soils that weren’t well drained and it thrived. Heavier soils with high organic matter produced abundant crops for years,” said Tim Nourse, owner. “Now, it struggles on our best soils.”
It’s difficult to determine how many acres of commercial rhubarb are currently in production because it is a specialty crop and there is not a code in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Nourse believes the plant’s decline is largely related to root soil fungi and root issues. Finding varieties resistant to the fungi has been challenging, particularly because consumers prefer the red varieties and these are the most prone to soil disease.
But Nourse Farms isn’t giving up on the crop. In 2012, they began planting on new ground and he is optimistic that production will increase.
“With our new focus on production of rhubarb our goal is to increase the number of plants we’re able to have available,” he said.
Nourse added rhubarb to the business in the mid-1980s because the crop was a good fit for the growing, harvesting, packing and storage facilities already available on the farm.
“It’s minor in our business, but you add all the pieces together and come up with a wide selection of crops to offer,” he said.
Although it’s only a fraction of Nourse Farms’ overall business, it’s a popular segment that typically sells out in early spring. “By the first of February this year we were already out of rhubarb,” he said. “There is a lot of demand there if we could fill it all,” he said.
Cultural practices play an important role in the long-term survivability of this crop and Nourse is diligent in rotating fields, using well-drained soils and other widely accepted practices.
“Our experience indicated that, for survival it was best to use divisions that are between 2 and 4 inches,” he said. “Smaller divisions tended to be more susceptible to soil-borne disease.”
They also follow standard field spacing of plants 3 feet apart in a row with 6 feet between each row, which encourages vigorous growth. At harvest, the crews use undercutters to lift the plants to be divided and use knives to make the divisions that are sold.
“There are some natural creases that fall apart, but very large divisions are cut,” he said. “The larger the clumps, the better chance of survival through transportation and replanting in a customer’s field.”
Choosing a hardier variety is another part of the equation. The perennially popular red varieties (those favored for pies) are the least vigorous varieties and are more susceptible to soil disease, meaning they have not survived well long term. Pink varieties, including MacDonald, have fared better and so Nourse has opted to concentrate on that variety.
Only time will tell how these plants will fare. It takes nearly four years for a rhubarb plant to be propagated, planted, harvested and processed into division.
“The plantings we’ve made the last three years on the sites we’ve chosen look good, so we’re positive for the future harvest,” he said.
Nourse’s willingness to embrace the long term and look to the future started early on in his business and it’s what eventually led him to incorporating rhubarb in the business.
Rhubarb is an important crop for Nourse Farms, but comparatively speaking it is a small slice of the business for the nursery. The business was originally founded to grow strawberry plants. In 1932, Roger Lewis established the nursery in Andover, Massachusetts.
Although Lewis developed the fledgling nursery into a thriving business, Nourse was a youngster growing up on his family’s dairy farm. After high school, Nourse attended the College of Agriculture at the University of Connecticut where he earned a degree in agronomy and ag economics. He also served in the U.S. Marine Corps where he rose to the rank of Captain before completing his tour of duty.
After serving in the USMC, Nourse began a career as a fertilizer salesman for a local co-op. Through this position, Nourse met Lewis. In 1968, Nourse learned that Lewis’ farm was for sale, so he and his wife Mary, seized the opportunity. They formed a corporation and moved the business to Whately, Hatfield and Montague, where it continues to operate.
“Farming has always been a part of my life and this was the perfect opportunity to return to farming,” he said.
The purchase included 145 acres of land, only 45 of which were tillable, but the nursery was in a good location and gave the couple a solid start in the business. In the spring of 1969, they planted their first crop of berry plants and asparagus roots with plans to harvest and sell for the 1970 season.
An eye to the future
Within the first season, they harvested nearly 1 million strawberry plants in that first season and close to 30,000 asparagus roots. Strawberries had always been an important component of the business and by the mid ’70s Nourse was considering opportunities for expansion. Brambles seemed like the perfect fit. At that point in time, brambles were a difficult crop because of the limited availability of virus-free plants.
“At that time, the plants were considered certified at a 4 percent virus infection level,” he said. “Today, those levels are unacceptable and there is basically a zero tolerance for virus in certified plant propagation.”
Eager to take on a challenge and turn it into an opportunity, Nourse constructed a pilot tissue culture laboratory on the farm in 1980 to experiment with the potential of that propagation method. His goal was to propagate virus-free brambles and conduct all of the testing on the farm’s site. From that trial lab, he built their first laboratory and from there was able to add on-site virus testing.
The current facility is 100 by 80 feet. The greenhouse includes a dedicated room where the cultures grow for three to four weeks to build the plant lip levels needed to meet annual projections. Once the projected number of plant lips is achieved, they are transplanted and grown in the greenhouse for eventual field planting.
All of the material is started from G1 stock that is tested each year. The nursery propagates high-quality G2 and G3 generation material that meets the standards as defined by the Massachusetts certification program. Their continued work with virus-indexing and ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) testing as well as tissue culture propagation are integral to their mission of producing the best small fruit plants.
Nourse didn’t solely focus on his laboratory. In 1982, he forged ahead with plans for a cooling facility, which has allowed proper storage of dormant, bare-root plants in ideal conditions. In 1987, a second and larger storage facility was built and this was the impetus for driving the small strawberry-only nursery into the nationally recognized small fruit nursery that produces raspberries, ribes, asparagus, rhubarb and horseradish.
Today, the 800-acre farm produces enough plants to fill a 32-page catalog featuring 10 types of plants with 89 varieties. Nourse estimates that they grow more than 25 million berry plants of all varieties and more than 2.5 million asparagus crowns.
“For the survival of any business you have to grow or expand for the business to survive,” he said.
At Nourse Farms, the emphasis on high-quality, virus-free production lends itself to a key component of marketing and sales.
“We sell G1 – G4 material and we make sure what we raise and sell is certified plant material that meets the standards of the state certification program,” he said.
For rhubarb specifically, he says there are two outlets for sales. The first is other farmers. Growers and home gardeners interested in establishing a rhubarb stand on their own land can purchase divisions through Nourse Farms’ annual catalog.
“We regularly have growers contact us for stock to start a planting size suited to their operation,” he said.
Through the years, low crop yields have influenced and increased prices for rhubarb. For buyers interested in only a handful of divisions, prices start at $6 each. Volume discounts can bring the price down to $3-$4 a division.
Even at those costs, it remains an economically feasible crop for growers.
“There is a still a lot of demand for rhubarb,” Nourse said. “We’re hoping that with all of the efforts we’ve made to improve production numbers that we’ll have increasing quantities available for sale.”