Berry Growers Sharing Great Ideas

Charlie O'DellBlackberry growers can learn so much from each other. Many berry farmers are inquisitive and also are very observant. They are open to trying new ideas and are willing to share their discoveries to help others. Our world would be a much better place if all were so unselfishly kind. Several years ago, blackberry growers from all over North America bonded together to form the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Growers Association (NARBA). They have a Google+ group that shares information with all members via email, websites, and other forms of social media.

Even old hands like me have learned so much, so I am always on the lookout for the next email. If you do not belong to NARBA, but you grow berries or are interested in becoming a raspberry and/or blackberry grower, you need to get with it. Join at the NARBA’s website at RaspberryBlackberry.com.

Unusual Way To Control SWD
A fine example of just such a grower is Robert Hays of Hays Berry Farms at Dumas, MS. He started growing a few blackberries back in 2000 just for family, then a few more each year for friends and neighbors. The word spread quickly throughout his area, so he planted more and more, unable to satisfy demand.

Now he has almost six acres of trellised, thornless blackberries and still cannot supply the demand. He markets his berries by U-Pick and through local farms markets, his on-farm retail market, and local processors.

When Robert discovered and shared with NARBA members that he could control late-summer spotted wing drosophila by installing 25 hummingbird feeders per acre in his six acres of blackberries, I contacted him to gather more information. He purchased 150 hummingbird feeders from Walmart, and filled each with plain, clear, sugar-water solution.

He reports that in his area, a pair of hummingbirds will hatch and rear up to five sets of their young each summer. While the young are too small to fly, he has seen the parents capture thousands of insects each day, including fruit flies, thrips, and aphids. The parents devour many, with most small-size insects taken to feed their young. He estimates there are more than 500 hummingbirds flying around his fields on picking days, some even landing briefly on pickers’ arms or hats.

Between his beneficial insects and his hummingbirds, he has not had to spray so far.

With Robert Hays’ high-yield blackberry trellising system, rows are 5 feet apart, and all canes are tied tightly to keep row middles open. All current season’s growth is tied to wires, no heading back. Barbed wire on trellises prevents tied canes sliding on wires during windy weather. (Photo credit: Robert Hays)
With Robert Hays’ high-yield blackberry trellising system, rows are 5 feet apart, and all canes are tied tightly to keep row middles open. All current season’s growth is tied to wires, no heading back. Barbed wire on trellises prevents tied canes sliding on wires during windy weather. (Photo credit: Robert Hays)

High-Density Trellis System
His high blackberry yields and unique trellis system also caught my attention. He plants his trailing blackberry plants 5 feet apart in-row, with rows planted on 5-foot centers, giving him 1,742 plants per acre — rather than traditional plantings with plants 4 feet apart in-row, rows on 10 foot centers, and 1,089 plants per acre. On his Arkansas-type erect blackberries, he plants 31/2 feet apart in-row.

On both types Robert nurtures every new plant that comes up from the crowns. He trains them in fan-shape up, over the top three-wire single-row trellis (two-wire trellis for his erect-type varieties), and back down on an approximate 45-degree angle. He ties each cane of his Triple Crown variety as it crosses the middle wire, then ties it to the bottom wire, letting each cane continue to lengthen, then zigzags it angling back up toward the top wire. As laterals form and lengthen, he also ties them to the nearest wire.

He does no summer or winter pruning. By maintaining all these extra lengths of fruit-bearing canes and laterals, his canes are loaded with berries. On the six acres and 7,800 plants, he and his pickers average 41/4 gallons of berries per plant. That’s more than 6,900 gallons of blackberries per acre, equivalent to more than 27,000 quarts per acre, or more than 54,000 pints per acre. His blackberries weigh about 5 1/2 pounds per gallon, so he gets well more than 35,000 pounds of berries per acre.

“He has the blackberryest-growing hill I have ever seen,” says his Extension agent, Stanley Wise.

Robert’s farms are in hilly country requiring terracing on the steeper hillsides in order to best work the land and prevent soil erosion.

Hays uses a mixture of 50% vinegar-water sprayed in-rows on young plantings for weed and grass control. The trellis has not been installed yet on young rows shown on left. Note drip irrigation on all rows. One field is bottom-land, all others are on terraced hillsides. (Photo credit: Robert Hays)
Hays uses a mixture of 50% vinegar-water sprayed in-rows on young plantings for weed and grass control. The trellis has not been installed yet on young rows shown on left. Note drip irrigation on all rows. One field is bottom-land, all others are on terraced hillsides. (Photo credit: Robert Hays)

Hays’ Production System
Robert is able to keep these narrowly spaced rows accessible by keeping all canes tightly tied on the wires, and even where canes cross each other between the wires. Nothing hangs out in the row middles, nor grows above the top wire in his production system (see photos). Such tightly tied canes keep these row middles — which are kept in grass frequently mowed with a narrow riding lawn mower — easily accessible to pickers. (Note: The horticultural hand tying tool — Max Tapener — makes tying canes and laterals to wires an easy job for me).

Robert’s production system is highly labor-intensive, but newer growers can obtain a lot of blackberries with a small planting. Increase the planting size as your market expands and as you are able to hire workers to assist in the summer-long months of cane and laterals tying, plus picking berries for several weeks, then pruning out of the second year fruiting canes. Robert removes these canes as soon as possible after harvest is completed. Then you have the reward of bigger harvests and the great joy of no more blackberry pruning.

To learn more about Robert Hays and his berry farms, check out his website at HaysBerryFarms.com. Robert loves to talk about his passion for growing blackberries, and I believe he would be an excellent speaker at regional and national berry growers conferences. He does berry growing consulting and seminars spanning a wide area.

Your blackberry customers are going to need bigger freezers for all of these berries.

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