The berry and small fruit industry has expanded greatly in the last few years, thanks to headlines touting health benefits, as well as growers in many areas looking for alternative crops. How are berry suppliers dealing with this increased demand? We talked to Nate Nourse of Nourse Farms in South Deerfield, MA, to get his input.
Q: How has this year’s unusual weather affected your growers and your own business?
The early season has been a huge challenge for our growers and for us. Everyone was trying to hold their strawberries back. Half of our growers made it through OK, and half struggled, if they had a crop at all. It’s been tough for everybody. But we’ve handled it really well. Most of our customers who had frost protection were able to save their berries or at least a portion of them. Everyone saw some loss, or some effects. As for the dryness, it’s been a big problem for some. They don’t have enough water, and their ponds are drying up. I just finished talking to a customer about fertility for next year. It’s so critical to have the plant healthy because we’re going to be making flower buds next month, and we need to have the planting in good shape. Last year all the rain led to root rot problems, and now we’ll have dryness. It’s been a battle to say the least.
Q: What are the biggest questions or topics your growers are asking about this year?
Nourse: The weather is always a factor, and we try and prescribe things to help people through those issues. But the biggest problem affecting everyone right now is the spotted wing drosophila. We’ve been watching it, and more than half of our customers are now aware, but many are still just finding out. There are a percentage of our customers that only have pick-your-own sales, and this is the only way their berries are harvested. There are chemical and cultural methods to manage the spotted wing drosophila, but that doesn’t help growers who only harvest on the weekends. We saw this coming, and told people about it as they started fall raspberry plantings. A grower in New York told me he never had to spray his raspberries before, and he’ll have to now, or he won’t be able to sell them. We’ve also had growers tell us their customers picked the berries, and went home and made jam, and all these worms floated to the top. I’ve answered more questions about this than any other issue in the history of our business. We know we have to work with it and live with it. The weather is a big part of the problem in the East and Midwest, because a small rain can wash the effectiveness of a treatment away.
Q: What variety traits are your customers asking about?
The biggest thing is having a variety they can take to market and work into their system. Whatever berry that is, we try and have that all-purpose variety that everyone can use. Then we have about 30 varieties each of strawberries and raspberries that give them alternatives. We’re looking at better production potentials so we have something fresh for them.
Q: What is the biggest issue affecting your own business?
For us, we’ve been blessed with this economy being tough. More home gardeners are planting, and I think that’s helping drive the locally grown movement. Locally grown, including the expansion of farmers markets and CSAs, is really going to help us. We couldn’t be in any better position. The CSA people are my biggest customers, and the CSA and farmers’ market growers buy earlier in the week than your pick-your-own customers, which creates a balance in sales.
Q: What do you do to assist your customers once they buy from you?
We are here every day to answer questions. We have a newsletter we send out twice a year that has information relevant to the time of year. The newsletter goes out in November and March. We also recently started producing videos. The first one covered plasticulture, and I am finishing another one on raspberry pruning which will be available this winter.
Q: What’s next for Nourse Farms?
We purchased two farms two years ago, and one of them produced half our strawberry crop last year. That same farm is planted again this year, and a good portion of our production will come out of there. Having those new farms with new ground for strawberries has been very important for us to have a better product. We have a three-year rotation for everything we grow, so there is a constant cycle of new plantings. We are also giving high tunnels a good shot. All the high tunnel information we get from our growers using them now, we can build on it ourselves and then pass it along to new high tunnel users.
We have been farming in Washington state for more than 10 years, which gives us another area to expand our efforts. West coast berry production is growing very fast because of the buy local movement, and it’s been a great thing for us to have a land base that’s never had berries before. It also helps us deal with new geography issues and keeps us more globally present and aware of what’s going on in different areas.