Two Decades in the Orchard Business—
Dana and Trudie Reed both grew up in the orchard business—he in New England, she in Johnson County. They opened Reed Valley Orchard, which is located in Bourbon and Harrison counties, in 1988. “We put out a small orchard to see what would happen,” Dana Reed said. “It kind of grew.” For sure. Now, the Reeds sell a variety of fruit including blueberries, blackberries, and black and red raspberries. Their annual blueberry jubilee and pancake day in June draws big crowds. They sell at their on-farm store, at the Lexington and Paris farmers markets, and at a couple of small grocery stores.
A Choice Made—
Four Generations Later—
TOP PHOTO: John Strang (left), UK fruit and vegetable extension specialist, with Trudie and Dana Reed of Reed Valley Orchard.
Customers love Kentucky-grown berries—and ferret them out—at on-farm orchards, farmers markets, auctions, and a handful of small grocery stores across the state.
Latest figures show that in 2008, farmers expected to plant more than 500 acres in berries out of some 13,000 produce acres. It’s clear that some Kentucky growers are finding berries profitable, even though they require a substantial up-front investment and the ability to wait for the plants to bear fruit.
That initial outlay and lack of immediate profit is balanced by the longevity of the plants: blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry plants can last a decade or even two with proper care.
For growers who choose to make berries a part of their product mix, the UK College of Agriculture can help.
County extension agents are the first point of contact for information about varieties to plant, production methods, and other questions about berry production.
Billy Reid of Reid’s Orchard in Owensboro knows that help is a phone call away. “I simply tell them what the problem is at the county office,” he said of Daviess County Cooperative Extension.
Sometimes, the agents will call John Strang, UK fruit and vegetable extension specialist in the Department of Horticulture. Strang works both with agents and directly with clients. He is well known and well respected across the state for his responsiveness and sage advice to berry producers, newbies and experienced hands alike.
“John has been a godsend to us,” said Trudie Reed of Reed Valley Orchard, which is located in Bourbon and Harrison counties. Strang has worked with Dana and Trudie Reed since they put in their first fruit 20 years ago. He helped them pick out the site, and they still rely on him for advice. Once, they would have lost their blackberry crop without Strang’s advice. Another time, it would have been their raspberry plants.
Some Current Research
At the UK Horticulture Research Farm in Lexington, Mark Williams and Derek Law have compared berries grown inside a plastic tunnel-like covering (the “high-tunnel” method) to an identical planting grown outside and uncovered. They’ve found that the tunnels can naturally reduce disease and insect problems and increase yield and quality.
“This method could be a boon to farmers who want to grow organically,” Williams said.
More than 25 years ago, the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering adapted some equipment for tobacco and vegetable planting and harvesting. Now, Terry Jones, horticulture extension specialist at Robinson Station, is adapting it again for use in strawberry fields. With its ironing-board-like platform, a grower could lie down close to the plants and pick the berries, propelled along the row by the slow-moving, motorized machine.
“It’s a whole lot easier than crawling on your hands and knees,” Jones said. He plans to demonstrate the equipment to farmers, who could adapt it for their own use.
Strang is looking at a method of growing thornless blackberries that would reduce water use, and he continues to perform variety trials. Research by Doug Archbold in Horticulture has shown that the nutritional value of blackberries remains constant even when flavor and firmness have started to decline.
Berries ripen quickly, so if they aren’t sold within a few days, growers can lose income. But there’s hope. Those overripe berries could be frozen or dried and used to make berry-based products. Recent research by a College team has shown customers would be willing to pay good money for those products.
This team included Tim Woods and Wuyang Hu, both agricultural economists; Sandra Bastin, a nutritionist; and Terry Jones, a horticulturalist. At several smaller grocery stores across the state, the researchers displayed prototypes of products made with blueberries to passing customers. Those would-be products included yogurt, fruit rollups, dry muffin mix, raisinettes, and jam, among others.
They asked some questions of those who stopped to take a look, such as:
Would you pay more for blueberry syrup, yogurt, etc. if it were made from Kentucky-grown blueberries?
Yes, yes, and yes, the researchers found. But what was surprising, Woods said, was that the attribute the consumers value most is that the product is locally grown. If products are made from Kentucky-grown berries and also organic, those products have an even higher value in the consumer’s mind, Woods said.
Knowledge about the health benefits of blueberries also increases the consumer’s willingness to pay more.
“Few producers promote the health aspect of their fruit,” Woods said, “but this research shows that it needs to be a part of the marketing message.”
Overall, this market research shows that “value-added products could be a huge advantage for berry growers,” Woods said.
Cal Blake, a Lexington berry grower, would agree.
“You’ve always got a lot of berries that are good but not marketable. You have to let them get as ripe as they can, but the bad thing is, you’re going to lose some,” Blake said.
You can salvage some of those berries if you turn them into jam or jelly, he said.
This past season, Blake’s wife Judi “sold every bit of jam she made—600 to 700 jars,” he said.
Another Kind of Wine
Tom Cottrell, the College’s winemaking specialist in extension, has spent much of the past three years helping growers with wines made from Kentucky grapes, but he hasn’t ignored berry wines.
Blueberry and blackberry wines stand next to the more traditional grape wines in the wine lab at the UK Horticulture Research Farm in Lexington. They are made from berries raised on the farm. Just like grape wines, they take the name of the variety used to make them. This year’s blueberry wines are Chandler, Blue Crop, Ozark Blue, and Pamlico. The blackberry wines are Chester and Hull.
Cottrell experiments with the ratio of ingredients before bottling. Later, he gathers a panel of testers to taste the various wines and tell him which ones have the best taste, aroma, and mouth sensation (mouthfeel).
He sees a strong market for berry wines in the state, in part because blueberries and blackberries will grow in parts of Kentucky that can’t grow grapes.
“Nearly every winery in Kentucky is trying to find blueberries and blackberries,” Cottrell said. “People don’t have enough.”
Tom Cottrell, the College’s
A Rich Niche?
Kentucky’s niche in the berry market, Strang said, is “berries that taste good, are of good quality, that you can buy locally.”
But that niche could grow. Strang said the market is “wide open” for more growers to provide more fresh berries. And the potential of value-added products using Kentucky berries is largely untapped.
One thing’s for sure—in a few months customers will again be lining up for this tiny, luscious fruit, sweet on the table and sweet in the till, as the 2009 season for Kentucky-grown berries begins.
A list of Cooperative Extension publications