Mar 30, 2012
Blackberry crops have expanded worldwide

Blackberries are native across much of Eurasia and North America. This presence, combined with their tendency to colonize disturbed areas, has made them a food source for humans for thousands of years.

The various members of the genus have had a multitude of uses throughout human history, as documented in archaeological studies and in art and herbals. For most of their history, they were a fruit to be gathered from the wild. It wasn’t until the mid to late 1800s that people started to select for better or, more typically in the early stages, novel characteristics in plants that were brought into cultivation.

Fresh fruit production began to be more common for local sales in the 1900s. The development of the raspberry/blackberry hybrid Logan in the 1880s served as the basis for a substantial canning industry in the Pacific Northwest. This industry expanded with the development of freezing technology.

Growing conditions in the Pacific Northwest and California were ideal for the newly discovered raspberry/blackberry hybrid Boysen, and for the first trailing blackberry cultivars developed by USDA’s George Waldo in the 1930s-1950s. While the fresh blackberry industry grew slowly as locally produced product, the processed industry flourished, thanks to the release of Marion in 1956 and the invention of viable machine harvesters.

The success of the fresh red raspberry industry provided an example of how blackberries could become an important fresh-market crop.

The fresh red raspberry industry grew rapidly from the 1970s to the 1990s with the development of cultivars developed primarily by Driscoll Strawberry Associates in Watsonville, Calif., which could be shipped internationally from California.

Blackberries have similar horticultural characteristics to raspberries, but have lower production costs than raspberries due to their more vigorous nature, greater disease tolerance and longer-lived plantings. California growers looked to blackberries as a profitable way to meet consumer desires for new products. Blackberry consumers in the South and the Pacific states had wild blackberries growing in their back yards and developed a preference for their blackberries.

The Southern species tended to be sweet, with a slightly grassy, and occasionally quite bitter, flavor, along with somewhat crunchy seeds. The main species in the West tended to have an intense, aromatic flavor with a sweet/acid balance that, when right, leads to the intense flavor, but, when too acid, leads to a tart berry. They also had less noticeable seeds.

Cultivars developed for the fresh market tend to blend these characteristics, being well balanced but with a strong sweetness, with seeds that don’t predominate the chewing experience. As these cultivars were combined with new horticultural and economic factors, blackberries became much more desirable to consumers. Perceived health benefits of highly colored fruit, due to their anthocyanin or antioxidant content, have helped drive increased customer demand. Thus, blackberries complemented other berries in expanded consumer interest.

The greatest recent expansion in blackberry production has been in North America, especially California and Mexico, for fresh consumption across the United States and Europe.

This expansion has been driven by factors like a stable blackberry supply in most or all months of the year, made up of cultivars that allow shipping to distant markets. While the fresh blackberry industry expanded rapidly in California in the 1990s, it exploded in Mexico in the 2000s. The Pacific Northwest, while primarily a processed industry, had a significant expansion of its fresh market at the same time. The most exciting production area for blackberries that has developed in recent years is central Mexico, in the states of Michoacan and Jalisco.
Most blackberries produce vegetative primocanes the first year, and after these canes go through a dormant period they become floricanes that bear the crop. In the 1980s, cultural manipulations were developed to allow floricane-fruiting blackberries to be forced into fruiting without a dormancy period. This production system is cultivar dependent and was first developed on the thorny Brazos, which had an estimated chilling requirement of approximately 300 hours. Production of Brazos was the basis of the development of the Mexican blackberry industry in the 1990s. In 1990, the Brazilian cultivar Tupy was brought to Mexico and was estimated to have a similar chilling requirement as that of Brazos.

Although initial efforts to manage Tupy with the same practices used on Brazos were not fully successful, adjustments were tried to provide for dependable production of Tupy.

The substantially increased quality of Tupy over Brazos led to expanded market development and tremendous expansion in production area. Fruit production in Mexico spans the months of October to June using these specialized management methods. It is estimated that Tupy was produced on roughly 16,000 to 20,000 acres in central Mexico as of 2011. This production has provided for a dependable fruit supply during the offseason in the United States and Europe.

With the expansion of blackberry marketing in winter and spring in the United States and Europe, U.S. fresh-market production was encouraged to increase. Crop area expanded further in the Western states, particularly California, and production for commercial shipping began in the South. Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Texas initiated acres for retail-market sales. Current production in the United States is at an all-time high with the development of these additional areas.

With increases in the United States, particularly from 2005 onward, one can see a strong upward trend in production. That of Mexico dwarfs U.S. production, however. Therefore, although not all production for shipping is included, one can see that blackberries shipped increased from just above 4,500 kilograms in 2000 to approximately 54,000 kilograms in 2010. While the tonnage of Mexican fruit going to processing is much less than the tonnage going fresh, with the tremendous expansion of the industry, there now is a processing industry where there wasn’t one in the past.

The U.S. Pacific Northwest, with more than 8,500 acres, and Serbia in Europe, with more than 12,000 acres, have remained the leading world producers for the processed market.

The Pacific Northwest, primarily Oregon, also has a substantial fresh-market industry, but this is dwarfed by its processing industry. Marion, marketed as Marionberry, is a trailing blackberry that has been the most important cultivar in this region since the 1960s. While renowned for its flavor and processing characteristics, it is thorny – which is a legal liability, especially in a machine-harvested crop – and it is too soft to ship fresh.

New high-quality, thornless trailing cultivars that are suited for machine harvesting and processing have been developed and are being widely planted. In addition, trailing cultivars that have firm fruit and can be shipped have been developed and are being planted in this region for the fresh market. While the fresh blackberry industry has rapidly expanded, the processing industry has remained relatively stagnant, with only a small increase in acreage worldwide.

By John Clark, University of Arkansas, Chad Finn, USDA

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