ATTRAnews - Newsletter of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

August 2010
Volume 18, Number 3

Newsletter of ATTRA - National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service: A project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). This issue of ATTRAnews is available online.

berries in basket
(Photo: USDA ARS)

Growing Small Fruits

As farmers and ranchers search for ways to stay competitive, they often consider adding new crops and products -- or new markets such as organic. Variety can attract new customers and spread out production risks, so farmers don't "put all their eggs in one basket."

Small fruits such as berries are in demand because of their delicious flavors and their nutritious anti-oxidant properties. In this issue we look at some considerations of growing and marketing small fruits.

Small fruit crops

Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, loganberries, boysenberries, tayberries, dewberries, gooseberries, currants, kiwifruit, pawpaws, cranberries, lingonberries, huckleberries, elderberries, bilberries, chokeberries, buffalo berries and honeyberries.

In this issue:

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Marketing Blueberries

berries in basket

Consumer demand for blueberries has boomed over the last 10 years, ever since scientific research showed the fruit's special health benefits. Blueberries are a good source of anti-oxidants and vitamin C. The tannins in blueberries can help prevent urinary tract infections, and half a cup of blueberries contains only 40 calories.

Growers may want to consider organic production to ease consumer health concerns both on and off the farm.

Producers will find a number of marketing options. Fresh blueberries can be sold at farmers' markets, roadside stands, or "U-pick" operations. There are well-established wholesale markets for fresh and frozen blueberries.

Blueberries are a popular U-pick crop. When acreage exceeds the capacity of U-pick customers, hired labor becomes necessary. One rule of thumb suggests that 10 to 15 pickers per acre are required during the height of the harvest season.

As local retail markets become saturated, many growers also sell their berries through growers' cooperatives. Value-added processing options include jams, juice, and frozen berries.

On-farm value-added blueberry products require setting up a rural enterprise with considerable planning, management, and start-up expenses. Working with co-packers may be a viable alternative to doing your own processing.

Because blueberries are highly perishable, efficient post-harvest handling is important. Berry flats should be quickly refrigerated after harvest. For commercial growers, a walk-in cooler is a must, as is a grading and packing shed.

Highbush blueberry plants typically start producing in the third season, with yields increasing for the next four years. When the bushes are mature, blueberries yield about three tons per acre.

Because blueberries are expensive to establish and maintain, growers often do not realize a return on their capital investment until the seventh year. Well-maintained blueberry bushes remain productive for at least 15 to 20 years.

—Adapted from the ATTRA publication Blueberries: Organic Production

Resources for Marketing Blueberries

Blueberry Marketing Options are presented in this publication from the Northwest Berry & Grape Information Network:

Go Blue! is a good article from New Farm about a New Jersey blueberry farm's marketing strategies

Wild Blueberry Association of North America
promotes marketing and good production practices
 
Blueberry budgets from state extension services show costs of production and projected returns. These are useful planning guides when adjusted for local conditions or organic practices.

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Bramble Fruits: Berries Enhance Crop Mix

— Adapted from ATTRA's Organic Culture of Bramble Fruits

raspberries
strawberries
A favorite summer treat, berries are increasingly in demand for the healthy anti-oxidants they provide. The delicate ripe fruits are consumed locally, since they do not ship well. These and other small fruits may be good candidates for direct-market sales, either on-farm, U-pick, or at farmers' markets.
(Photos: USDA ARS)

Bramble fruits -- blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, tayberries, boysenberries, and loganberries -- can be a good crop to add to the production mix for the small-scale and/or part-time farmer. Once established, raspberry plantings, for example, should produce for at least six years, with some types bearing for more than 20 years. Bramble fruits can extend the small producer's offerings and harvest season. However, since bramble fruits have special production requirements and a very short shelf life and marketing season, growing them is not appropriate for everyone.

High costs of establishment, labor, and irrigation often discourage growers from getting into the bramble market. Economically, raspberries or blackberries are considered to be a medium- to high-risk crop because of the large initial investment, high fixed costs, biological uncertainties such as climate, and the fact that returns are delayed for two or more years.

Can You Make Money Growing Cane Berries?
To help decide, first consider where you will market the berries. Options include wholesalers, cooperatives, local retailers, roadside stands, U-pick operations, farmers' markets, and processing firms. Many small, independent fruit producers find it increasingly difficult to market their berries through commercial channels. High labor costs and the lack of a profitable wholesale market can make direct marketing much more attractive to small growers.

Before you plant fields, make your marketing arrangements. Since costs are high, it is crucial to locate markets that will pay the premium prices required to turn a profit. U-pick marketing is highly attractive as a low-investment alternative. However, these operations may be required to sell at relatively low prices. See below for more about U-pick enterprises.

It is advantageous to organic and low-input growers to select well-adapted species and varieties, especially those that are genetically resistant to common diseases. By doing so, growers find they have more time and resources to spend on other critical areas, such as weed control. Cultivar information is readily available from state or county cooperative extension services and from local nurseries. It is important to buy from reputable suppliers to ensure virus-free and nematode-free planting stock.

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Cool Post-Harvest Techniques for Strawberries
—Adapted from ATTRA's Strawberries: Organic Production

Strawberries must be picked and handled very carefully. The fruit should be firm, well-colored, and free from rot. When harvested at the right time and handled properly, strawberries will remain in good condition for many days.

Most California- or Florida-grown strawberries found in supermarkets are picked three-quarters ripe to withstand shipping. The color of these strawberries is a full red but the taste can be disappointing. Small-scale growers who pick fruit when it is ripe can easily compete with supermarket berries by offering a tastier, fresher berry to local consumers.

Proper post-harvest handling of strawberries is essential. Cooling the berries will remove field heat and increase shelf life. Harvest early in the day while temperatures are cool and then pre-cool the fruit before shipping or sale. Forced-air cooling is the most common method used for strawberries. The flats are stacked parallel to each other in a cold room with an open space between the stacks. A tarp is then placed over the top and ends of the stacked cartons, with a fan located between stacks. The fan pulls cold air between the stacked flats, removing the field heat from the berries.
picking berries.

 
It is vital that the fruit be cooled as soon as possible after picking. The more the delay between harvesting and cooling exceeds one hour, the greater the losses to deterioration. Water loss from strawberries can be a problem, so it is critical to maintain high humidity in the cooling facility. Avoid wetting the fruit, though, which can cause decay problems.

Fresh-market strawberries are usually sold in pint or quart baskets. One-piece molded plastic containers called clamshells are also becoming popular. Packing the fruit in traditional pint-size plastic baskets requires considerable time and labor, because buyers grade the fruit according to its arrangement in the flat. This puts additional burden on farmworkers to pack the fruit correctly. Clamshells make the strawberry pickers' job a little easier. Wholesalers are not as concerned with the appearance of the fruit pack since it looks uniform with the clear lid.

One drawback to the clamshells is the greater difficulty of cooling the fruit. The holes in the containers are not big enough to allow for rapid cooling, so extra time in the forced-air cooler is necessary. The clamshell containers also hold less fruit than the pint baskets and are sometimes sold at a lower price. If you sell wholesale or directly to stores, the buyers may require this type of packaging.

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Pick-Your-Own and U-Pick Enterprises

picking berries.

— Adapted from the ATTRA publication Entertainment Farming & Agri-Tourism

Less popular now than in the days of large families and stay-at-home moms, U-pick operations still have the potential to provide some on-farm income. Today U-pick -- also known as pick-your-own -- enterprises are often part of entertainment farms that offer many family-oriented rural activities.

Pick-your-own farms do best when they are located within an hour's drive of a population center of at least 50,000 people. Even so, customers will be adversely affected by cold or wet weather or any dramatic rise in the price of gasoline.

Pick-your-own operations bring added responsibility for the grower. Farms must provide restrooms, adequate parking, and a safe entertainment area for small children. Farmers must work with an insurer on liability issues. Organic practices fit well with U-pick operations because the risk of exposure to pesticides is dramatically reduced.

Farm fields and facilities must be kept tidy and attractive. The best mix of vegetables and fruits will depend on customers' tastes -- which are becoming more sophisticated -- rather than on what can most easily be grown. Attention to these basics will help build repeat sales, a primary goal of all direct marketing.

Resources for U-Pick Operations

Comprehensive national website for promoting and finding local food: www.localharvest.org

Guidelines for Farmers

Websites and Maps for Consumers

Farm Trail organizations make it easy for consumers to find on-farm produce and agritourism operations. Here are links to some good examples for regions considering this kind of marketing.

Advice for New Agricultural Entrepreneurs

Starting any new enterprise can be risky. Before investing money, time, and energy in an unconventional agricultural business, new entrepreneurs should complete personal, market, project feasibility, and financial evaluations. Workbooks are available to help with questions that arise in enterprise planning.

Technical and managerial assistance is available from a wide variety of sources. These include county extension agents, small business development centers, economic development agencies, banks, tourism agencies, state universities, local community colleges, state departments of agriculture, and local and regional organizations committed to rural economic development. A business plan can then be developed to evaluate the enterprise financially.

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Resources about Small Fruits

information

National Agriculture Library's Alternative Farming Systems Information Center provides links to the best current information on sustainable and organic production - click Alternative Crops and Plants, then click Specialty, Heirloom and Ethnic Fruits and Vegetables and then click Fruits and Nuts. Or call (301) 504-6559.

Small Fruits Resources website gives numerous links to newsletters, production guides, and information across the country. From Cornell University's Tree Fruit and Berry Pathology Group

Midwest Small Fruit and Grape Network provides information on management, commercial production, harvesting, and marketing of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, highbush blueberries, and grapes.

North American Fruit Explorers is a network of individuals in the U.S. & Canada who share information about growing well-known and minor fruit such as mayhaws, kiwis, persimmons, and pawpaws.

Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research is a collaboration of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon agricultural experiment stations, USDA-ARS, and the small-fruits industry: (541) 758-4043.

Ohio State University Extension offers links to a large number of newsletters and other resources for small-fruit growers across the country.

Resources about Currants and Gooseberries is hosted by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Southern Region Small Fruits Consortium offers newsletters, conferences, and strategic marketing for small-fruit producers. From N. Carolina State Univ., Clemson Univ., Univ. of Arkansas, Univ. of Georgia, Univ. of Tennessee, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ.: (919) 515-6963.

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ATTRA Resources for Fruit Producers

ATTRA publications.

The following publications can be downloaded for free at the ATTRA website, or you can call 1-800-346-9140 for a free print copy.

Small Fruit Publications

ATTRA Publications to Guide Farm Enterprise Planning

Small-Fruit Pest Management

New and Updated Publications

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ATTRAnews is the bi-monthly newsletter of The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service - ATTRA - which was developed and is managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). The project is funded through a cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture's Rural Business-Cooperative Service. Visit the NCAT Web site for more information on our other sustainable agriculture and energy projects.

Teresa Maurer, Project Manager
Karen Van Epen, Editor
Mary Ann Thom, e-newsletter production

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Comments? Questions? Email the Weekly Harvest Newsletter editor Karen Van Epen at karenv@ncat.org.

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