Summer-Long Multiple Berry Crops

Summer-Long Multiple Berry Crops

Consider Summer-Long Multiple Berry Crops

The idea for this article is based on talking with localvores (local customers) who eagerly pick each berry crop we produce in succession over the summer and early fall. Since retiring from strawberries we now use our fresh asparagus to open each new spring season from mid-April to mid-June. Then we move into U-Pick blueberries, then in succession into thornless blackberries, then to late summer primocane raspberries and seedless grapes, closing up at Fall’s first hard frost, usually by early to mid-October.

When customers host their family and friends visiting from other areas, they often bring them to pick. Many of them ask us, “why isn’t such a farm near our hometown?” My answer is that probably very few growers have stopped to consider the idea of succession berry crops.

A few farms in Virginia have been doing succession berry crops for decades, such as Charles and Anne Geyer at Westmoreland Berry Farm in northeast Virginia, Don and Jean Bishop in Cumberland, Kinder Berry Farm near Appomattox, and Tom and Arvella Stewart in Scott County. There are very few such farms compared to the many sizable towns and cities with suburbs where concentrations of potential berry customers are found. Our customers think there should be more such farms providing a continuous supply of berries all summer long near every city and town! Have you considered this idea for your farm?

Less Risky Than You Think

There are pros and cons of any new berry crop undertaking, but careful planning over the winter months always bears fruit down the road! There is a big advantage of risk reduction through diversity that multiple berry crops offer.

We all remember the great freeze of Easter 2007 when warm March weather brought many fruit crops into bud and bloom, then to freeze-out, greatly reducing, even eliminating crops and killing some plants. Our blueberry and blackberry crops were greatly reduced by this freeze, but our primocane late summer raspberry plants as well as our seedless grapes were just emerging from dormancy. Both these crops grew on to make bumper crops, enabling us to pay the bills and even show a modest profit for the year!

So, what’s keeping local, summer-long berries unavailable to most urbanites?

• The problem: High start-up costs. Good nursery plants are expensive, plus the costs of installing irrigation on each new field. We have spent close to $5,000 per acre for good plants from nurseries featuring planting stock originating from tissue culture, certified to be disease-free. Irrigation costs nearly $12,000 for our 12 acres of total berry crops including a deep irrigation well and commercial pump, underground mains, hook-ons at each field, in-ground drain boxes, and heavy-wall more permanent drip tubing placed down each row of every acre of berry crops. Specialized equipment was needed, such as an airblast sprayer, an herbicide sprayer with row shields, a hand-gun spot sprayer, and many other items needed for berry production including pruning and trellising tools.

On the horizon, there always seems to be another “must-have” item on our wish list. After a good while, your spouse too, may become numb to such needs, as long as the needed item promises to pay for itself in better crops! What about your need for a market checkout stand? How about parking areas for customers, access to roads, signage, picking and take-home supplies, and cash registers. There is a lot to consider.

A solution to high start-up costs: Start small, grow with demand, then reinvest some annual berry income into more plantings.

• The problem: The long payback to a break-even point. With our blueberries, we figure about six years from planting to break-even point, five years for blackberries, and four years for late summer raspberries. It helps if you are relatively young when you begin your first planting.

High start-up costs actually have an advantage for you: You are establishing a long-term, permanent crop with annual income for many years from a single planting. We do have to replant the occasional plant that didn’t make it. Usually we find it was our fault that it died because there was not a drip irrigation emitter right at the stem that first summer of the new planting. If that summer is dry, as most of ours seem to be these days, that plant will die, count on it!

While irrigating each field to check the wetting pattern, I take a spray can of fluorescent orange field marking paint and walk the rows marking a very visible spot by each plant that is not getting water within 3 inches of the stem. Then, we go back and pop on an emitter everywhere needed. It helps if you have young help for this job.

A solution to a long break-even point: Having some off-farm employment or annual farm crops income from other enterprises.

• The problem: Reliable labor. As the saying goes, “who you gonna call?” It helps if you are located within a few miles of a college or university. We have found many good, energetic students who need part-time work. Select those that have had some experience with physical work. Be prepared to pay them well above minimum wage for their hard work; when you find good workers, you want to keep them coming to the farm. You must be flexible on their schedule; school should always come first.

A solution: Scout area colleges’ work-study programs for part-time help before you order plants or begin planting. 

The Bottom Line

Is this business profitable, growing and marketing multiple, succession-ripening berry crops? Yes! You can expect to net several thousand dollars an acre in good years, less in those years when weather disasters strike some of your crops. For us, the good berry crop years have far outweighed the few bad years. Also, you can gain personal satisfaction with your new mission: Providing a spring and summer-long continuous supply of many colors of health-promoting, antioxidant-laden berry crops for local consumption, while helping to increase more growers’ awareness of consumers wanting this type of berry growing model near their own towns and cities.