Starting Commercial Berry Production: Basic Considerations
Growing berries is often seen as an easy way to earn money. There is good demand for fresh, locally grown berries at the peak of the season and gross returns are high compared to many crops. However, both the cost of production and production risks are high. Because the crop is perishable, marketing risks are even higher. Growing berry crops demands a high level of management. The following information is intended as a guide for those considering berry production.
Before investing in berry crops, you must identify your market and production goals. Who is going to buy your product and where are they located? Will most of your fruit be sold to pick-your-own customers, ready-picked at the farm gate, sold wholesale to other retailers, or processed into value-added products.? Most growers sell berry crops through a combination of markets. Ask yourself what you can do better than your competitors.
Develop a good business plan. The business plan summarizes your business objectives and how you will attain them. Information on how to prepare a business plan is available in the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) Factsheet Preparing Business Plans, Order #08-051.
Berry crops are hand-picked and require a large seasonal labour pool to harvest the crop. Pick-your-own customers reduce the need for hired pickers, but few crops are harvested totally by pick-your-own methods. Berry crops are perishable, and must be harvested every 1-3 days in all sorts of weather. Consider the availability of labour in your area. Many berry growers use an offshore labour program to supplement local labour. However, offshore labour is best suited to growers with relatively large acreages and several different crops.
Table 1, Production, Average Yields & Prices of Ontario Berry Crops 2003-2012 (on the back page), indicates the estimated acreage and average production of berry crops in Ontario in recent years. Higher yields can be achieved on well-managed farms.
OMAFRA publication Fruit Crops: Estimated Production Costs, Ontario 1992, provides an estimate of the cost of production for raspberries and strawberries. These costs were updated in 1995 for strawberries. Crop budgeting tools are available from on the OMAFRA website. For more information follow the links from www.ontario.ca/omafra to Agriculture, then Agriculture Business Management, then Production, or search for Crop Enterprise Budgets within the OMAFRA site.
Good Air Drainage: The planting site should be relatively flat to avoid soil erosion. Low-lying areas are prone to late spring frosts and should also be avoided. The site should be protected from prevailing winds, but open enough that cold air can drain away to lower areas.
Soil type and pH: Strawberry, raspberry and blueberry plants have very fine, shallow root systems, which grow best in well drained sites with good organic matter content. If water lies in the field in early spring or after heavy rains, the site is not drained well enough for berry production.
Soil pH is a critical factor, especially for blueberry production. The optimum soil pH for various berry crops is shown in Table 2: Optimum Soil pH for Berry Production.
Soil pH can be adjusted upward with lime, or downwards with sulfur. However, soils with a pH of 6.5 or higher can rarely be adjusted economically to a soil pH for blueberry production.
Table 2: Optimum Soil pH for Berry Production
Cropping History Herbicide residues from previous crops can hinder the establishment of berry crops. Try to get a history of herbicide use for the past three years. Herbicides such as Atrazine, or Pursuit and other Group 2 herbicides can persist and cause injury to subsequent berry crops. Strawberries and raspberries are susceptible to Verticillium and should not be grown in fields where strawberry, raspberries, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or other solanaceous crops, have been grown in the past 3 years.
Soil Analysis Soil tests are important to evaluate the soil pH and fertility. Soil tests by an accredited laboratory are the most accurate tool available to help determine the amounts of phosphorous, potassium, magnesium fertilizers and lime which should be applied before crop production. Information on how to sample for soil fertility and pH is included in this package. See OMAFRA factsheet Soil Sampling and Analysis for Managing Crop Nutrients, Order #06-031.
Nematode Analysis Several types of soil-borne nematodes can feed on berry plant roots and reduce yields. These nematodes are more likely to be a problem on lighter soil types. The previous crop can have a major impact on populations of nematodes. For example, populations of root lesion nematode are favoured by crops such as corn, wheat or clover. Nematode populations are discouraged by crops such as asparagus and certain types of sorghum - sudan grass. Soils should be sampled for nematode populations and if damaging levels exist, corrective measures should be taken the year before planting. See OMAFRA factsheet Sampling Soil and Roots for Plant Parasitic Nematodes, Order #06-099.
Preplant Soil Preparation Preparing the soil before planting is extremely important for berry crops. These are perennial crops and it is hard to correct soil-related problems once the crop is in the ground. After the planting site is chosen, a full growing season is usually required before planting berries. Adjust soil fertility, control weeds and nematodes, and improve organic matter. For more information, see "Preparing the Soil for Optimum Production" at www.ontario.ca/crops under "Berries".
Irrigation Berry crops are highly responsive to irrigation and will benefit 9 years out of 10 when an irrigation system is in place. New growers should consider the capital cost of an irrigation system and the availability of water before planting berry crops. For strawberries, an overhead sprinkler irrigation system can be used to prevent frost damage in the spring, for drought control and for evaporative cooling. Raspberries and blueberries are more often irrigated using a trickle irrigation system. For more information on irrigation, refer to AAFC publication "Best Management Practices: Irrigation Management."
Choosing a Variety See "Suggested Berry Varieties for Ontario". This list is updated annually. The varieties you choose to plant will depend on local conditions and intended market. Most growers plant several varieties including early, mid-season and late-season varieties. Taste and fruit size may be important characteristics for a pick-your-own operation. Keeping quality and size are critical for growers who sell to wholesale markets.
Do not plant "home-grown" plants. Many diseases of berry crops, particularly virus diseases and soil-borne pathogens, are easily transferred from field to field on planting stock. The Ontario Plant Propagation Program is designed to minimize this risk. Strawberry and raspberry planting material in the program comes from virus-tested stock and is grown according to guidelines that minimize the risk of insect or diseases in the propagation fields. All berry plants should be purchased from a reputable plant propagator who follows the guidelines of the Ontario Plant Propagation Program, or accredited guidelines in other states or provinces. There is no certification program for blueberries in Ontario. For lists of plant suppliers and propagators see: www.ontario.ca/crops
In addition, numerous factsheets are available on various topics.
Table 1. Production, Average Yields & Prices of Ontario Berry Crops 2003-2012
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