May 18, 2020
Caneberry growers gather in St. Louis to get latest updates

In early March, the annual conference of the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association (NARBA) brought several hundred people to St. Louis, Missouri, to learn about new research, production recommendations, and industry trends, and to network with caneberry growers, suppliers, breeders, researchers and marketers from across North America and beyond.

An ever-popular part of the conference is the pre-conference tour, which this year featured a visit to Eckert’s Family Farm in nearby Belleville, Illinois, and was hosted by NARBA board member Chris Eckert (pictured above). Eckert’s receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year offering pick-your-own apples, peaches, strawberries, blackberries, vegetables, pumpkins and Christmas trees and retail sales at several locations. This location, their home farm, also has a 30,000-square-foot retail market, a garden center and restaurant.

For the NARBA group, their 13 acres of blackberries were a main point of interest. Eckert’s started raising blackberries in the 1960s, but in 2012 transitioned all their blackberries to a rotating cross-arm trellis, after learning about the system at a NARBA conference in 2011. They designed their own system and had the components made by local machine shops. While some trellis systems have one short arm, their trellis features two long arms so canes can be trained up alternate sides. They prefer to drop the trellises toward each other in pairs rather than all going the same direction, because it makes spraying more efficient.

Plants are on a 4-foot spacing with two or three primocanes per plant. The most critical step, said farm manager Tom Dutkanych, is tying the primocanes to that first wire, which is 18-20 inches from the ground. They then space the laterals, which will be trained to grow vertically up from wire, about a fist apart. At the time of the tour on March 4, the trellises were all set vertically – unlike some more northern blackberry producers, they don’t need to lay down the trellised plants and cover them for winter with row covers for cold protection. While the group was there, a crew demonstrated the process of laying down a row, though they usually do this a bit later in March. With one worker stationed at each post to guide the trellis down and set the positioning pins, it was a quick job.

With the trellis down, the new spring growth orients upward, and, when the canes are at least 50% bloom they rotate the trellis to vertical again. They are able to get a dense canopy that is easy to spray, and they’ve had no disease or spotted wing drosophila problems.

Training the plants is time-consuming; three workers are busy training blackberries mostly full-time May through August. Chris Eckert emphasized that the rotating trellises are not labor-saving for Eckert’s Family Farm – what the trellises do for them is double or triple their pick-your-own sales. Having the fruiting branches all on one side of the trellis makes for easy harvest and happy pickers.

More stops on the tour

At another stop, the Mid-America Distribution Center of berry marketer North Bay Produce in Mascoutah, Illinois, the group evaded busy workers and forklifts in the noisy, refrigerated warehouse and saw pallet after pallet of berries, passed through multiple refrigerated areas for forced air cooling or storage, and peeked into a room where gowned, gloved, and head-covered staff were sorting and repacking clamshells of berries. This facility’s location allows for access all across the U.S. as well as from supply areas in Mexico. It serviced 6,700 trucks and moved a volume of 2.8 million cases last year.

North Bay Produce, started in 1984 in Michigan, is a growers’ co-op with members in North, Central, and South America; it also purchases product from non-members all over the world.

At Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, participants heard presentations about cutting-edge research at the center. This included new technology for digital phenotyping of plants, which can be an aid to breeding and other research, with scanners scaled from single plants in greenhouses on up to full fields of row crops; an examination of grafting of grapes at a microscale; a project surveying a wide range of perennial plants including wild legumes, grains and the aster family (sunflowers) for their potential in agriculture; and a project using high resolution X-ray tomography – like CT scans – to reveal the intricate internal structure of plants. And of course, the tour had to finish up with a stop at the Anheuser Busch Brewery, a true St. Louis institution.

Big picture outlook

Along with sessions on specific issues, such as spotted wing drosophila, a major pest for all caneberry producers, and broad mites, an emerging pest, the conference took a look at the big picture.

Dennis Todey of the USDA Midwest Climate Hub discussed some of the effects growers could expect from climate change: Precipitation changes mean more flooding, increasing precipitation intensity, more soil and nutrient loss potential and more droughts. Insects are expanding their range northward, with reduced winter die-off, earlier spring emergence, and more generations. Warming weather affects dormancy and chilling hours but there is increased variability and will still be freeze issues.

In his Caneberry Market Update and Outlook, Roland Fumasi from RaboResearch described trends impacting consumer food choices, with the major “buckets” being transparency, food safety and affordability, followed by others such as convenience, healthfulness, flavor and environmental sustainability.

Fumasi’s graphs showed that caneberry demand growth ranks No. 1 among all fruits. However, prices are not strengthening as fast, and he identified main supply-side challenges, especially in major production areas, as water, labor and regulation.

Another highlight of the conference was a sad one: a tribute to Oregon-based USDA-ARS berry breeder Chad Finn, who passed away after a tragic accident last December. NARBA presented its annual Distinguished Service Award posthumously to Finn.

Next year’s conference is scheduled for Feb. 22-25 in Gaithersburg, Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. Along with a tour and speakers and sessions focusing on caneberry production and research, the conference will feature opportunities for learning (and lobbying) about public policy.

— Debby Wechsler, FGN correspondent

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