Berries are tricky to grow, but berry farmers are juiced about their work
Challenging to grow. Irresistible to eat. Overflowing with superpowers.
Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries—delicious, yes, and so much more.
Collectively, berries boost brainpower, contain antioxidants and are loaded with an assortment of vitamins. Individually, they bring even more gifts to the table. Blueberries make an excellent natural dye. Nutrients in blackberries may contribute to weight management and improved eyesight. With over 200 different types, raspberries are a testament to variety being the spice of life.
Trudie and Dana Reed, Blue Grass Energy consumer-members, got their first full crop of blueberries in 2002 and today grow 14 varieties on their nearly 120-acre farm near Paris, but that’s not all. Reed Valley Orchard is known for its berries—including blackberries and Trudie’s favorite, black raspberries—as well as its 50 varieties of apples and multiple varieties of peaches and pears. Although the crop was lost last year due to cold weather, the farm boasts the largest Asian pear planting in Kentucky.
Trudie Reed, who grew up picking black raspberries with her mom, reproaches this fruit for being a “booger” to grow. “They are time consuming and don’t like weather fluctuations,” she says.
She calls blueberries prima donnas, ticking off a list of potential crises.
“They can’t have wet feet. They can’t have dry feet. They need to be in raised beds. They can’t be sitting in water. A drought will do them in.
“Still, we love berries and we keep trying.”
John Strang, Extension professor at theUniversity of Kentucky Department ofHorticulture, notes that blackberries are relatively easy to grow compared with other fruit crops.
“But fruit crops in general,” he says, “are difficult to grow.”
Some of the berries turn up in the treats at the Reed’s on-site country store with The Valley Bakery. The biggest sellers are the hand-held blackberry and apple oven-fried pies. Other favorites are jellies and jams, berry ice cream and whole fruit pies, all made from scratch.
Currently the farm, a Kentucky Proud member, has about 2 acres of blueberries and a half-acre of blackberries. A small plot is devoted to black raspberries, although the Reeds are beginning to remove these because they are aging out.
“Taking care of berries requires pruning on all of them,” Reed says. “And especially with blueberries, you must amend the soil at least six months prior to planting.”
Her advice to home gardeners? “Don’t put out more berries than you can keep weeded.”
Gabrielle Mitchell grows blueberries, blackberries and raspberries on her 6-acre Ballard County farm in western Kentucky. The Jackson Purchase Energy consumer-member and avid self-taught gardener has planted a berry patch, two orchards and a grape vineyard. She added strawberries last fall.
“One step at a time, right?” Mitchell says of the farm she bought in May 2016 and named Serenity Base.
Mitchell cans and freezes a huge amount of food yearly, including jelly, pie fillings and syrup made from her blueberries and blackberries, which are routinely pilfered by her daughters. Several bags of the fruit go into the freezer for eating through winter. Her favorite dish to make from the berries is blackberry cobbler in a cast-iron skillet.
“My blackberries are wonderful,” says Mitchell. “I pick about a gallon a day once they start ripening.”
Around the mulberry bush
Near Stamping Ground, Owen Electric consumer-members Chris Rhodes and Katarina Midelfort grow blackberries, blueberries and mulberries on Purplewood Farm—one of the few commercial mulberry farms in Kentucky. The Kentucky Proud member is a new operation taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We only have small berry plots currently,” says Rhodes. “As we see what grows and sells well, we will expand to the back part of our farm.”
Rhodes notes the farm lost its 2020 mulberry crop due to two late frosts; however, he continued to harvest wild mulberries for the farm’s mulberry jam and additional mulberry trees were planted. Purplewood Farm also grows lavender and raises bees for honey, selling all its products in season at local farmers markets.
Morgynne Lunsford, Cynthiana, takes her pick of the berries at Reed Valley Orchard. Photo: Tim Webb
Family tradition continues
Kristina Thompson plans to sell her blackberries—not at a farmers market but from her own land in Caldwell County and in a produce stand she built herself.
“My father started raising strawberries as a way to help put me through college. Now I’m raising blackberries to earn money for my kids’ school,” says Thompson, who has a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
Although last year was devoted to setting up operations, this will be more of a production year. The Pennyrile RECC consumer-member tends a blackberry patch comprising about 50 vines and is learning the ropes from neighbor and mentor Rocky Anderson.
“Rocky is showing me how to take the blackberries and set the vines from what I brought so I can increase the amount I have,” says Thompson. “He’s researched watering and fertilizing methods and the best way to trellis the blackberries.”
Thompson’s small farm is surrounded by family. “When I graduated college and was ready to set down some roots, I found this place,” she says. “My father and aunt own a 1,000-acre farm, so on all four sides of me my family owns the land. I’m just an acre, but there’s no place else I’d rather be.”
The do-it-yourself innovator built “chicken tractors,” rectangular cages that are placed in the blackberry patch and moved every few days.
“Chickens eat bugs, fertilize the plants and do weed control,” Thompson says.
She constructed a produce stand using mostly found materials. It has electricity for a minifridge that cools the eggs she sells in addition to the blackberries. In the fall, Thompson adds straw bales to her inventory. She also plans to plant strawberries, picking up where her father left off.
“Being from a farming family, it means the world to me to know that something I grew and worked hard for would be able to provide my children an education,” says Thompson. “I was a first-generation college student and was taught how important secondary education is. I want my children to know that they can be successful, whether it is college or trade school, without the worry of outrageous debt,” she adds.