An expanding opportunity for Carolina growers

Photo By Scott Bauer, Ars.
Focused breeding programs are responsible for larger berry size.

Years ago, no one ever saw blackberries in a supermarket. However, with increasing evidence of the health benefits of the berries and perhaps more importantly the development of thornless brambles, they’re readily available. That popularity is benefiting North Carolina growers.

North Carolina bramble production

North Carolina isn’t likely to rival the bramble production levels of Oregon and Washington, but the specialty crop is growing in importance. Blackberries have been grown throughout the state with a few commercial operations; one of the largest and most established growers has sold berries to a supermarket chain for years, but most have direct-marketed them. Primarily planted in the western part of the state, the total acreage in 2006 was about 150 acres.

Raspberries, on the other hand, have rarely been planted in the Tarheel state. Gina Fernandez, Ph.D., professor and researcher at North Carolina State University (NCSU), said that is changing. At the present time, the largest planting is estimated to be .25 acre, but with the release of NCSU’s first red raspberry variety, Nantahala, she expects to see an increase. The cooler mountain regions are best suited for raspberry production; trials for Nantahala were conducted in 2006 at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville and on local farms.

New market emerges

In an ideal world, farmers could take a page from the movie “Field of Dreams,” believing that if they grow it, buyers will come. For existing and potential North Carolina bramble producers, something even better happened in early 2006. Florida-based Sunnyridge Farm, Inc. came calling, looking for growers to produce hundreds of acres of berries for them. It wasn’t a speculative proposal; the grower, packer and shipper was willing to sign contracts before production began.

“[Sunnyridge has been] very public in their desire for 400 acres of blackberries [in North Carolina] within two to three years,” said Wayne Mitchem, researcher and extension agent at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher. The company also hopes that North Carolina growers will produce hundreds of acres of raspberries.

These berries will supplement those purchased by Sunnyridge in Georgia and Mexico; the Carolina mountains are cool enough to extend the blackberry season into mid-August. Fernandez hopes to lengthen the season for raspberries by using row covers, mowing plants to delay production and growing plants in tunnels.

With a ready buyer secured, growers expanded acreage in 2007, but a plant shortage limited that to 50 acres. They expect to plant another 50 this year.

Mitchem has planted 11 acres of Navaho and other blackberry varieties in response to Sunnyridge and will add an additional nine this year. The initial planting will yield its first fruit this summer. He pointed out that although brambles are high-value crops, they also are costly to establish; estimates range up to $15,000 per acre. However, the yield may be as high as $9,000 per acre.

He added that the sustainability of brambles hinges on several factors. First and foremost is establishing the market. While Mitchem and fellow growers are fortunate to have Sunnyridge contracts, both he and Fernandez caution farmers about planting any crop without ensuring buyers for it. Secondly, growers must have a labor source for harvest. For a hand-picked and highly perishable crop, having the right workers at the right time becomes even more crucial. Mitchem said he and others hope to hire local workers and to get assistance from the Employment Security Commissions.

“The need for lots of labor is new for growers in our area,” he added. “Our other crops don’t need as much labor.” Unlike some of the state’s growers, those in brambles haven’t used the H-2A program and don’t plan to start until changes make it more farmer-friendly in terms of wage and other requirements.

Association unites growers

Recognizing that at least some of those obstacles can be solved through group efforts, growers from both Carolinas formed the North Carolina Commercial Blackberry and Raspberry Growers Association (NCCBRGA) last year. The group is an affiliate of the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association (NARBA), which was known as the North American Bramble Growers Association until January 31 of this year.

During a plant breeding procedure,
Agricultural Research Service Technician
Mary Peterson applies pollen from a desired
male blackberry parent to the female flower
parts of another blackberry plant.

NARBA Executive Secretary Debby Wechsler welcomed the organization’s formation. “We see‡a lot of opportunity for growers in the region, both in wholesale production and in production for local markets or direct sales to consumers,” she said. “Consumption of blackberries is increasing rapidly, not just in the U.S., but worldwide, as consumers who didn’t already know them as a locally produced crop (or wild) become more aware of blackberries as year-round availability increases (due to production in Mexico and South America), and as consumers‡learn about the terrific health benefits of eating blackberries.”

Mitchem, who was elected as an ex officio board member, said education will be a major focus of the North Carolina group. He added that there is much yet to be learned about commercial production and assistance from researchers and extension personnel will be sought. An emphasis will be placed on good agricultural practice certification, as Sunnyridge requires EuroGAP certification (European Good Agricultural Practices). The NCCBRGA also will be a proactive voice for labor concerns.

Fernandez pointed out that forming the association gives the bramble growers the formal recognition needed to solicit funding and to speak on legislative issues. She urged growers to take advantage of the educational offerings that NCCBRGA plans. Likely, some of that programming will be conducted at annual meetings, which may be planned in conjunction with other commodity gatherings.

Fernandez said that a number of groups may be of assistance to the young organization. The Farm Bureau and grower associations may be helpful in funding meetings and research while the agriculture department can provide fertility recommendations. Information on chilling requirements and related matters is being compiled by the state climate office.

Research

Fernandez and other researchers are lending significant support to the bramble industry. She said the GoldenLeaf Foundation and the Tobacco Trust Foundation are important financial sponsors of breeding and research programs. She is developing raspberries for the mountain and piedmont regions and working with a new primocane fall blackberry from the University of Arkansas. An NCSU graduate student is developing more efficient breeding processes, research that may last as long as 10 years.

Fernandez said the Southern Regional Small Fruit Consortium (www.smallfruits.org) is another friend to blackberry and raspberry growers. This group allows researchers from several southern universities to collaborate and share resources to strengthen agriculture in multiple locations.

With such a strong team, bramble growers hope more opportunities will evolve.

“Sunnyridge’s success [here in North Carolina] may bring other [buyers], “ Mitchem said.

Web Sites of Interest

-North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association: www.raspberryblackberry.com
-North Carolina State University: www.ncsu.edu
-Sunnyridge Farms, Inc.: www.sunnyridge.com
-Southern Regional Small Fruit Consortium: www.smallfruits.org

Jenan Jones Benson is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.