HERSHEY, Pa. — The Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention is always a big event, and it got even bigger this year, as the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association held its annual meeting at the Hershey Lodge in conjunction with the produce convention.
Bramble crop growers from across the country gathered to trade techniques and talk about the successes and challenges of growing berries.
Brett Rhoads of Rhoads Farm in Circleville, Ohio, uses a rotating cross-arm trellis system to grow Ouachita, Natchez and Triple Crown blackberries.
His family started with 10 acres in 2010 and added 12 more acres in 2013.
The blackberry canes are trained to grow on the trellis, and the arms of the trellis can be folded flat on the ground during winter. “The whole field basically lays down,” he said.
The folding trellis system allows the plants to be easily covered to protect them from the cold. Temperatures often fall below zero in the winter in central Ohio, making winter damage one of Rhoads’ biggest concerns.
“We’re really testing the system this year,” he said, as temperatures have hit minus 9.
Rhoads has reason for optimism, though. During the trellis planting’s first winter, the mercury sank to minus 16, and the plants suffered no damage.
While winter protection is helpful, the horizontal position has another benefit: It causes all the buds to form on one side of the trellis.
That consolidation makes harvesting much more efficient, Rhoads said. The fruit is exposed and easy to see, making for less missed fruit.
“Our pickers really like this system,” he said.
Rhoads has the trellises set so the berries will all be on the east side, protected from the warm afternoon sun.
On the trellises, the fruit dries earlier in the day than with a traditional stand, he said. The pickers no longer have to wait almost until midday for the dew to dry. The structure also allows better spray coverage.
Rhoads has four people working six days a week to train the canes. After several years, the trellises have 10- to 12-foot fruiting laterals, and berries are everywhere. On traditional plantings, the berries might only show up on the outside two to three feet of the plant.
Training also helps keep the canes from snapping when they are bent down for the winter. Each plant will push six to eight new canes each year, so breaking one is not a tragedy, he said.
“Training is the most important part of this system,” he said.
Rhoads keeps no more than three canes to increase the number of fruiting laterals. He shears the plants when they hit the top of the trellis, rather than wrapping them back around, to avoid yield loss.
“If we kept them all, it’s just too much,” he said.
The airy spacing helps with nutrient and light absorption and seems to have reduced botrytis problems, he said.
Rhoads aims to hit the wholesale market between July and September each year. At that point Georgia and the Carolinas have finished their season, but California has not restarted its picking, he said.
Rhoads said he hopes to get 9,000 to 12,000 pounds of berries per acre. He believes those yields are achievable with the trellis system.
Bruce Smith of High Hopes Farm in Westmoreland, N.H., offered tips for growing raspberries in high tunnels.
He particularly values Brix, which indicates sweetness, because he sells a lot of berries to wineries. He tried Taylor raspberries, which have a Brix of 8 or 9 but are seen as more of a family variety than a commercial one.
“Big mistake. I could not control the growth,” Smith said. The plants grew 25 to 26 feet tall.
Joan J is Smith’s favorite variety. He can control the Brix with three fertilizations.
In general, Brix is much higher for the tunnel berries. His Encore raspberries have increased from 7-8 degrees Brix to more than 9.
Polana raspberries, a shorter variety, added a foot or more in height in the high tunnel. Caroline raspberries are also well-suited for tunnel growing, he said.
Smith is doing more fall raspberries now, which do “exceptionally well” in tunnels, he said.
He plants in two rows that are 12 feet apart and six feet from the sides of the high tunnel.
The high tunnels have allowed Smith to spread out his spraying program. He hits his outside raspberries every three days but only sprays the high-tunnel berries once a week. Fewer bugs visit the high tunnels, he said.
The tunnel needs to be correctly positioned for the sun, and the sides need to be rolled up in the summer to keep the heat from climbing toward 100 degrees and hurting the fruit, Smith said. He also puts black material on top of the tunnel to cut the heat in the summer.
He said he does have trouble with large birds landing on the high tunnel and piercing the plastic with their talons.
This year marked the fourth time that the Raspberry and Blackberry Association has held its annual meeting in Hershey. The group held its first annual gathering in Chocolate Town back in 1990 and last visited Hershey in 2008.
This year’s gathering drew growers from such noted berry states as Georgia and California, along with bramble farmers from Pennsylvania and surrounding states, said Debby Wechsler, the group’s executive secretary.
The Mid-Atlantic’s mostly smaller growers emphasize direct marketing. “This big growth in Buy Local has really helped them,” Wechsler said.
Despite new insect pests like spotted drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug, the berry market is very good, she said.