Feb 18, 2020New grower shares struggles, successes in starting new farm
Young growers’ enthusiasm and energy for the job were shared in January at the Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Savannah, Georgia.
Dan and Jessica Perdue discussed their first years of efforts in starting a blackberry farm in Perry, Georgia, with attendees of the caneberry education sessions. A fledgling blackberry grower who’s been mentored by other larger growers in the area, Perdue gave a full picture of some of the highs and lows he hit since they started the farm in 2015.
“I’ve wanted to work for myself for a long time, but I also thought blackberry farming was a good opportunity to make good money,” he said. “We had higher expectations of revenue and income than we should have, but you know, I don’t regret that decision. We found mentors who could mentor us in this, and just went from there.”
It was a big change for the family. Although Jessica had a degree in agriculture business and Dan said the two were prepared for the long hours, he had previously worked in the tech industry. The first year was a lot of time spent outdoors putting together irrigation systems.
“As a tech person, you can see the fruit of your labor pretty quickly, and you can undo it if you don’t like it and you can do it differently pretty quickly and pretty easily with very little cost,” he said. “Whereas growing produce, if you don’t do something correctly you may not know it for six or eight months, and it’s difficult to go back and change that.”
Fruitful and brutal years
Dan Perdue started with planting just 10 acres of Ouachita blackberries in the red clay soil of Perry, Georgia. The Georgia blueberry market was found to be saturated, whereas the blackberry market still had room for growth. Perdue decided that Ouachita was a good variety all-around and it’s done well for the farm. Some initial plantings of Natchez have suffered from over cropping, and new canes were eaten by deer.
Perdue laid down drip irrigation fed with well water. The plants were laid out with a T-style trellis, rather than rotating cross-arm trellis – which Perdue said would have been costly to operate and made the rows too narrow for his tractor.
The first harvest took place from June to the middle of July in 2016. Perdue characterized this as his “young and dumb” year, in which he had fun, didn’t lose any money but didn’t pay down his loan. Several unexpected problems came up: The local labor force didn’t want to pick at piece rate. Prices quickly dropped from $12 a pound to $8 a pound. Then he received the dreaded call from his marketer telling him not to bring any more fruit. With overripe fruit on the bushes, he opened up the farm for pick-your-own sales.
“We earned enough money to pay people to take out our primocanes and tie up floricanes,” he said.
Perdue hired H-2A labor though a farm labor contractor, and prices improved in 2017, but other challenges came up. Because he hadn’t sprayed preemptively for pests and disease, the berries had quality issues.
“I can still remember the place I was in the farm when I got a phone call from our marketer that they had decided to reject an entire day’s worth of blackberry pallets from us,” Perdue said. “Jessica can remember that phone call as well because I was in tears. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
In the end, a frozen packer, Seal the Seasons in North Carolina, purchased about 10,000 pounds of berries, saving the farm from losing lots of money, and paying for its labor and packaging costs. The crop ended up in a frozen tri-berry mix marketed as locally-grown. Seal the Seasons put the Perdue Blackberry Farms name and picture on the package as a representative of the growers.
Perdue began working with a new marketer in 2018, and he established a better, more consistent spray program for the farm.
Perdue Blackberry Farms doesn’t have a forced-air cooling system or an on-farm refrigeration facility, so instead, they’ve contrived a system for the berries to quickly get into a refrigerated truck. He placed a shed on an equipment trailer, creating a space where berries are examined and packed on stainless-steel tables. The berries are then placed on a refrigerated truck that moves through the field with the harvesters. Berries are cooled with forced air at the marketer.
Jessica Perdue said the mobile packing facility has evolved over four harvests – for instance, they found clamshell containers will warp if not stored out of the Georgia heat – but it’s working well for them.
“This is quite functional,” she said. “It’s a nice flow. We’ve got where they get the boxes, they count out the clamshells so that we really try to reduce the amount of waste for our packing supplies.”
Working with H-2A labor has proved wise – he only has to negotiate with the contractor for a single piece-rate price rather than worry about local labor problems, or the housing and many other requirements that would come with hiring H-2A labor himself.
Dan Perdue has had to intervene and make sure the pickers were completely cleaning the bushes of ripe berries. In 2018 they also started a new practice where they share the workers with another farm and only harvest every other day, trying to completely pick the 10-acre farm every harvest day.
“This helps with spray programs, it helps with overhead costs,” he said. A good crew of H-2A workers can finish the whole farm on a harvest day. “It’s a good feeling to finish the day at 7:30 or eight o’clock at night and know, hey, I harvested everything that’s out there today.”
They’ve continued to do pick-your-own sales Saturday’s, and other activities just for community involvement rather than a big profit.
In 2018 and 2019 he made money, although not as much as he had first hoped. His plans for hunting trips with buddies have been abandoned, but there’s been money to replant some bushes and maintain his production levels.
But in Dan’s words, it’s been fun.
“Even with all the bad fruit, with all the bad prices, we had a lot of fun,” he told growers at the conference. “I hope that all of you in here enjoy growing blackberries, enjoy producing fruit, enjoy what you do on your farm. If you don’t, and you don’t know this, there’s a lot of other options of things you can do in this world.”
For his part, the former technologist remains motivated to stay in farming.
“There’s just something special about seeing that fruit that you’ve worked so hard for – seeing it finally come to fruition,” he said. “When you’ve worked hard all year long, (and) now you’re setting several thousand pounds of your fruit on a truck that will help feed your friends and your neighbors and other people that you don’t know, that’s a special feeling.”
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor