May 15, 2007For five weeks in summer, Pullins family comes together to sell 28 acres of berries
Raspberries are a scratchy, labor-demanding crop, and certainly harvest season is the most intensive – and important – time of the year.
That fits with the folks who operate Champaign Berry Farm. Each year, they sell 28 acres of berries, mostly pick-your-own, to people in the Columbus, Ohio, area. Members of the Pullins family have other careers they focus on, too, but they all congregate at the farm during the four to five weeks of June and July when raspberries are ready to harvest.
And customers come. The 75-car parking area usually has 20 to 30 cars in it belonging to people who will spend a couple hours picking 10 to 12 pounds of berries into a waxed cardboard tray in a wooden carrier provided by the farm.
The farm is owned by Mike and Cathy Pullins and their sons, Matt and Kenton. Mike has worked for Ohio Farm Bureau for 33 years and is director of outreach. Cathy works in education and has summers to devote to raspberries. Matt, 28, caused the family to get involved with raspberries when his high school project took off with a life of its own. Starting with 5 acres in 1995, the farm has grown and now has two locations. Kenton is a junior in engineering at Ohio State. Daughter Sarah works in Chicago for a business consulting farm, so she’s not involved day to day.
But they all gather ‘round for raspberries.
More than 80 percent of the crop is sold u-pick and the rest is sold ready-picked at the farm or wholesale to farm markets. It takes a crew of four to six migrant workers, plus another 10 to 15 local people, to keep the berries picked, and the farm hires school kids, senior citizens – anybody who wants to work.
They run some long days. The farm is open to pickers six days a week, from 7 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. On Sunday afternoons, the farm is open from 2 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Mike Pullins shared his knowledge and experience with other growers last winter during the National Bramble Conference, which was held in conjunction with the Ohio Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference. He didn’t seem concerned that too many others would enter the business.
“We need good growers and production at a reasonable price,” he said. “Customer awareness of the health benefits of berries is very high.”
People have really gotten the message that dark berries are good for them. Last year, Champaign Berry Farm advertised berries for u-pick at $2.60 a pound and ready-picked for $7 a quart. Even then, buyers had to call ahead to buy pre-picked berries.
When picking time comes, the Pullins send postcards to past customers and post the ripening time on their Web site, www.champaignberryfarm.com. Customers with questions can e-mail or call.
The Web site, established in 2005, has “enhanced visibility and sales,” Mike said. “We’re also registered on several ‘buy local’ Web sites including the Ohio Farm Bureau’s directory and the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Farm Markets directory. Our best promotion value has been the monthly free listing of pick-your-own opportunities in the Columbus Dispatch.”
About 40 percent of the customers come from the Columbus area, which now has 1.3 million potential customers, Mike said. There are plenty of other cities in south-central Ohio, and customers come from all over.
They grow several varieties, but the backbones are Titan, the primary red variety; Jewel, a black variety, starts the season; and Mac Black is a later-season black variety. Added together, raspberry season is only a little more than a month long. Raspberries of a given variety ripen over about a two-week period and need to be picked every other day.
The Pullins have started to experiment with fall-fruiting primocane varieties, but have so far stayed with the summer-fruiting floricanes. While farm market operators like to extend the marketing season, the Pullins have been satisfied with keeping raspberry marketing to an intense month early in the year, before people are satiated with fruit. Only strawberries are earlier.
The floricane-bearing early raspberries entail more work. Floricanes bear fruit on plants that grew the year before. When fruiting is done, the canes die and need to be removed before the next crop. That’s done during the winter.
“Winter pruning is accomplished mechanically and is about 80 to 90 percent effective,” Mike said. “Hand pruning is used for summer pruning.”
The winter pruning is done with a sicklebar mower that trims the tops off the plants. The mower is then adjusted and used vertically on both side of each row to cut plants back. Raspberries send up new plants each year from the mother plants, and unless those are kept back by mowing and use of herbicides, rows can’t be kept narrow.
Each year, one side of the row is pushed back further, with plants on the other side developing more of the fruit. For weed control, the primary herbicides are Roundup, Casoron, Surflan and Gramoxone.
In the mowing process, most of the old canes are removed, and more will be taken out during hand pruning in late spring. At that time, plants are headed back and new laterals grow out from the canes. Most of the fruit is borne on these laterals.
“Mowing takes out 30 to 40 percent of the row and 80 to 90 percent of the dead canes,” Mike said. “That’s adequate to maintain productivity and control disease. It saves labor and reduces costs, improving our returns.”
Shifting to primocane varieties would eliminate most of the pruning. These berries are mowed down completely at the end of the season and new plants grow the next spring. They fruit in the fall – too late, Mike thinks, for the u-pick market, which thrives in the summer and dies when kids go back to school.
U-pick requires good working conditions for the pickers. The raspberries are planted on beds 8 inches high and 2 feet wide, about 30 inches between plants and 10 feet between rows. Like many berries, raspberries are hurt by too much or too little water. The sandy loam soils provide good drainage, enhanced by the beds, which raise the berries above standing water. Drip irrigation lines down the rows provide water and nutrients.
The aisles between rows are planted with hard fescue, a slow-growing grass that provides a good working surface without demanding a lot of mowing, Mike said.
The borders of the farm are planted with prairie grasses and prairie flowers, and Conservation Reserve filter strips further enhance the atmosphere.
Most of the berries were planted from 2002 to 2004, when the farm expanded from 5 acres to 27. Since they didn’t have enough land, they searched for and found a second location with the kind of soil they wanted.
Mike sees a good future for berries, but says there are a lot of challenges.
Besides more growers and more production, the industry needs a reliable supply of labor, he said. Better mechanical harvesting systems and better packaging systems would keep the product more affordable for mainstream consumers.