Drum roll, please! The 2020 Herb of the Year as selected by the International Herb Association is … Rubus species. What? No sage or thyme? What is Rubus species? Simply put, this is a scientific way to refer to a group of bramble plants that produce some of America’s favorite summer berries including blackberries and raspberries.
Are blackberries and raspberries really herbs? Yes. In fact, Merriam-Webster defines an herb as a plant used for its medicinal, savory or aromatic qualities. Blackberries and raspberries definitely fit this definition!
Farming & Growing Berries
To celebrate the year of the berry, why not grow a few cultivated blackberry and raspberry bushes in your home garden or go bigger and think business?
No matter your goal, it’s good to start at ground level. Nanette Neal, an extension educator for The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, advises that everyone sample their soil before they do anything else.
“One of the first things you want to do is take the soil sample, which can be done through your local extension office, where you want to plant your raspberries or blackberries so you know you are preparing your soil to the best benefit you can before you plant your crop,” Neal says. “You want to make sure you’ve got your pH and your nutrients right before you even get started. Adjusting after you plant the crop is difficult.”
Space It Out
Space is an initial consideration for health and profit. More plants equal more maintenance and time. “You get items too close together. They get hot,” Neal says. “You spread them out. They cool down. If they get too hot, they’re more prone to disease than if they are able to spread out and keep cool.”
Each berry variety will have different space requirements, but the rule of thumb when planting blackberries and raspberries is one plant every 5 feet.
Marine veteran Jason Pratt, owner of Indian Springs Berry Farm near Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, started his organic blackberry operation on his family’s 8-acre horse farm in 2015.
The horses were long gone, and he was looking to generate revenue. Taking up a total of 2 acres, Pratt’s farm opened for picking in 2017. He acknowledges more plants equals more payroll.
“You have to touch every plant twice a week from May through June when they’re doing their major growing,” he says. “That is how you have to figure out how many plants you want. Farming is not my full-time job, so I have to pay people to do all of the labor. It’s not cheap.”
While blackberry and raspberry plants are perennial, their canes are biennial.
First-year canes are called primocanes and grow only leaves. Second-year canes are called floricanes. They flower, set fruit and die at the end of the season. Dead floricanes should be removed.
Pratt mows spent canes from healthy plants in place, adding to the soil’s organic matter.
Blackberries and raspberries grow and reproduce rapidly. Pratt compares their growth to weeds with the capability to grow 6 to 8 inches a day in spring. Once in production, the plants will grow new canes and flower on old canes in the same year.
Both berries are best grown on trellises. This provides order to unkempt growth and allows for both better production and ease of picking and pest/disease control. Homeowners often go DIY, while U-pick farms go with more elaborate systems.
Pratt uses a commercial system that allows the blackberries to be lowered to the ground over the winter and covered for protection. This protection is crucial to maintaining a good harvest in northern climes.
In spring, the plants are raised a little to encourage flowering all on one side of the plant. Once the plant is fully raised, the berries are all still on one side of the plant. This allows U-pickers easy access to the berries.
High-tunnel growing has also proven popular with businesses.
“That helps extend the growing season,” Neal says.
“Basically, you’re going to get three seasons out of one year. A high tunnel works similarly to a greenhouse. But instead of growing in pots and up on table slats, you are growing in the soil.”
It’s not hard to find numerous varieties of berries. The home gardener can pick up a few plants at the local hardware store or nursery. For a business, the choice can be a key to success.
Pratt started his U-pick farm growing early, mid- and late-season varieties. He replaces his late-season varieties (mid-August) with early and mid-season varieties.
“For us, we found out that as soon as school starts, nobody wants to come out anymore,” Pratt says.
“Personally, I was less happy with the variety that fruited late in the year. It seemed to me to be more susceptible to spotted wing drosophila [a small invasive fruit fly] than the other ones.”
Pratt’s summer now starts with ready Natchez berries bearing gigantic fruit the first two weeks of July. That is followed by Ouachita, ready around mid-July, and Apache, which readies around the end of July or the beginning of August.
“All three of those varieties I really, really like,” he says. “It’s cool to get these big berries you can’t eat in one bite. They’re two-bite blackberries. They’re just massive.”
Pratt’s varieties all fruit on their second-year canes. But there are varieties that break the biennial rule and fruit on their primocanes.
Rolling in the Dough!
Can blackberries and raspberries be profitable?
Neal says they can, but they must be run as a business. She counsels growers to know their market up-front.
“If I go to the farmers market and I don’t sell everything, they’re not going to carry over for the next three days until I get to my next market,” she says. “What am I going to do with all the berries? You’ve got to have a backup plan or a value-added plan.”
Some businesses choose to process their berries into jams, jellies, pies and cakes. Neal reminds people to follow cottage foods and home bakery guidelines. Which rules you follow depend on where the products are sold.
Pratt feels location is a factor in his success. His farm sits in a high population area, and he can charge $6 per pound for U-pick berries. Other farms aren’t so close to large populations and charge $3 to $4 per pound.
“I think people don’t want to drive an hour to go pick blackberries,” he says. “Some people do, but most people don’t.
“Our customer base is really suburban moms. They love coming out with their kids and then a lot of retired people that want to go pick and make jams and jellies and that kind of thing.
“I’m surprised by how many groups of young people going out for a group event or date night were starting to show up last summer. Last summer, we were able to open a lot more because the yield was there.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Hobby Farms magazine.