As the number of small family farms increases across Texas and the Southwest, so does the variety and number of fresh fruits and vine-ripened vegetables available to weekend tourists and Sunday drivers at pick-your-own/ready-picked farms all across a three state region.
While sweet, fresh strawberries lured urban/suburban road trippers and fresh food fans down country roads and to rural farms throughout the month of April, mid-May through the end of June should keep the crowds coming as ripe seasonal blackberries of several varieties flood the market.
Dr. Larry Stein, professor and horticulturist, is a fruit, nut and vegetable specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension in Uvalde and a leading authority on specialty crops. He says blackberries have very high production potential, and fresh fruit commands good prices, making commercial production of blackberries a potentially profitable fruit crop in Texas. But he says while commercial production is limited in the state, blackberries are becoming a popular and high-demand specialty crop by consumers who often buy them at family farms and farm-to-family outlets in every corner of the state.
“With Blackberries you can produce a lot of fruit in a small amount of space and there are not a whole lot of pest problems you have to deal with,” says Stein. “And the blackberry is more resistant to cold, especially the erect varieties, so recent freeze conditions in late April and early May did little to harm maturing blackberries, which are just now beginning to ripen and will soon be ready to pick."
Stein says most varieties of blackberries grown in coastal, south and central Texas begin ripening in early to mid-May and will last into June and possibly early July while longer chilling varieties will ripen and produce in June and into late July.
"For people just starting out and looking for a specialty crop to grow and market, blackberries would be a good choice. They produce well, handle the cold better than many other specialty crops and can produce volumes of sweet fruit," Stein reports.
Understanding types and varieties
Blackberries are brambles or caneberries, fruits in the Ru-bus genus, and are actually cultivated as an improved form of wild southern “dewberries” which grow all across Texas. Blackberries, unlike raspberries and many other brambles, tolerate the high summer temperatures of the Southwest as well. Blackberry varieties are available today which bear large-sized fruit, have an extended period of harvest, can be thorned or thornless, and have improved firmness for transporting to more distant markets.
"The University of Arkansas has an active blackberry breeding program and has released the latest varieties on the market like the Kiowa, a recommended thorny berry variety that produces very sweet berries. One of the latest varieties they released is the Natchez, a thornless berry, designated a Texas superstar, which produces a very large berry and can be very productive, But it can actually be a little over-productive, meaning it produces too many berries one year but may not produce as well other years," he added.
Although blackberries do have some challenging insect pests and diseases, Stein says they work well for growers who wish to grow a specialty crop that is environmentally friendly. Potential growers should be aware that picking berries can be labor intensive. Machine harvesting blackberries is possible, but not practiced in Texas. That may be why many small commercial blackberry farms have enjoyed success with Pick-Your-Own operations.
Blackberries are biennial plants having two types of canes. Current-season canes are called “primocanes” and one year-old canes are called “floricanes.” Floricanes are flower-bearing canes, which die after the fruit crop matures. Cultivated blackberries today are classified into two fruiting types: floricane-bearing, which only flower and set fruit on floricanes; and primocane-bearing, which flower on primo-canes late in the growing season, and then bear on floricanes also.
Fruit production of blackberries is directly related to primocane growth and vigor. Primocane bearers are capable of producing a small crop the first year, and floricane bearers can bear a crop of 2,000 pounds per acre the second year if primocanes grow well the first year. Plants may produce for 15 years if managed well, but the best production is usually during years 3 through 8, depending on the variety. Good yields on healthy mature plantings range from 5,000 to 10,000 pounds per acre.
Easy to grow, just add water
Blackberries are extremely versatile in not only the amount of sunlight they receive but also the soil in which they grow, the temperature around them, and even the amount of water required to grow them. They can grow in sandy, loamy, and clay soils as long as well drained, and even in soil that would be considered nutritionally poor for most crops. In addition, they can grow in large amounts of shade to no shade at all, growing in deep and light woodland areas and areas void of shade altogether, and with a moist soil can even tolerate drought.
Though blackberries are far from immune to diseases and pests, there are no known pests or diseases unique to the berry.
“You can get some Anthracnose in a blackberry population in a wet year, which isn’t much of an issue with how dry it’s been recently. And in certain years stink bugs can be a problem," Stein adds. But in general, it appears the obstacles to overcome growing blackberries in almost any number are all but non-existent in comparison to the gains and pains of many other types of specialty crop production.
In many ways the plant itself is just as versatile as the conditions in which it grows. The fruit can be transformed into any number of things like pie, ice cream, juice, jelly, jam, even wine, and can be put into long term storage by canning; turning them into jams, jellies and preserves; freezing them; and when all else fails, just outright eating the delicate and delicious little fruit right off the vine.
In modern times, the blackberry has been heralded as a health food, but in ancient times the Greeks used blackberries as a remedy for gout, and the Romans made a tea from the leaves to treat various illnesses.
While the blackberry may be considered a healthy food of choice, there is little argument that the primary reason for the fruit's popularity among consumers is the sweet and succulent taste. As a specialty crop of choice, the berry offers reasonable drought resistance, produces prolifically and requires less management than many other crop choices.