Growing berries: a labor of love
By Sandi Switzer | June 25,2013
Despite its name, The Apple Barn & Country Bake Shop in Bennington sells a variety of berries, including strawberries and raspberries. New to the farm this year are blackberries.
Berries can sweeten a farmer’s income, but the labor-intensive crop is hardly a get-rich-quick scheme.
A number of central and southern Vermont farms sell a variety of berries at farm stands and farmers’ markets as well as at pick-your-own operations.
Wood’s Market Garden in Brandon is a fruit, vegetable and flower farm that has been a fixture in the region for over 100 years. Strawberries have been a part of that business for more than 75 years. Wood’s raises strawberries on three acres for the retail market and pick-your-own area, said owner Jon Satz. “The majority is sold through our Route 7 farm stand. We also sell at Rutland Farmers’ Market and a [community supported agriculture] account in Boston,” he said. “Pick-your-own represents about 20 percent of our berry sales.”
Wood’s Market Garden boasts 150 acres of Vermont farm and woodlands, and is well-known for its sweet corn, fresh strawberries, and more than four dozen varieties of fruits and vegetables. Wood’s turned to organic farming a decade ago, and also has seven greenhouses on site for raising bedding plants, ornamentals, and vegetable starts.
“Strawberries as a whole represent about 25 percent of the farm’s produce production income,” said Satz. “We have been growing strawberries organically since 2001 and became certified in 2012 when we started to wholesale some of the crop.”
Weather, especially rain, is the most challenging aspect of growing berries in Vermont, he said. “Wet weather increases disease pressure. A very wet June can wreak havoc on a crop, as well as hold pick-your-own crowds down in numbers.
“Overall, berries are a very labor-intensive crop and are grown for a full year before any returns are received,” Satz explained. “The rewards are as great as the risks are high.”
Wood’s Market Garden grows what are known as “June berries,” rather than everbearing fruit. “Over the past decade we have seen — along with most growers — that the season has crept up towards May. It is now rare to be picking on July 4th, although that was still part of the main season not too many years ago, before climate change really began increasing,” Satz said.
Iva Liebig of Liebig Berry Farm in West Pawlet agreed weather is a big factor in the success of annual berry crops. The farm has an irrigation system so dry weather isn’t an issue, but too much rain or too much heat can pose problems.
“You might have a fantastic production and the berries look great, but it could be 100 degrees outside — and no one wants to come pick berries,” she said.
Liebig Berry Farm on Buttons Falls Road grows strawberries on three acres, blueberries on 10 acres, and next year will have raspberries on two acres. Pick-your-own accounts for about 85 percent of business, with a small percentage of the berries sold at the nearby farm stand, according to Liebig.
The berry business features a short but busy season. Strawberries are generally available from mid-June thru July 4; the blueberry season typically starts around July 10 for three to four weeks, Liebig said.
“My husband [Phil] and I planted our first crop in 1965 and harvested it in 1966. We started with strawberries, then added the blueberries,” Liebig said. Her husband passed away in 2010, leaving Liebig — in her 80s — as sole proprietor of the berry farm.
“The only reason I stay in it is I like seeing the people,” she said. “We have people who have been coming here ever since we opened, and we also see their children and grandchildren.
“I also like seeing a good crop,” she said. “We’re hoping next year to have raspberries and some sweet corn.”
The Apple Barn and Country Bake Shop sells a variety of berries at its market on Route 7 South in Bennington, and at the Farmers’ Market in downtown Bennington; it also offers pick-your-own opportunities. “It’s been a family owned business since 1972, and we’ve had the berries since the ‘70s,” owner Lia Diamond said.
The Apple Barn boasts 10,000 strawberry plants, 1,000 blueberry plants, 1,000 raspberry plants — and new this year are 500 blackberry plants, she explained.
“It’s a small part of our business. We’re primarily apples; the berries are a backyard family-fun adventure,” Diamond noted. Fruit crops are all weather-dependent, and berries have the added challenge of being low to the ground, making it “tough on the back.”
“It’s a big investment with little return,” Diamond said. “It mostly attracts people to the farm.” The Apple Barn features a variety of strawberry plants, including “everbearing” fruit.
“They’re a little more high-maintenance. They bear in the early and late season, and they will continuously bear until the first frost,” Diamond said. “It’s nice [that] when you don’t have anything else to pick, the everbearings always seem to come around. But, they’re not the easiest to care for.”
Mad Tom Orchard in East Dorset has been in the apple business for 73 years and the berry business for a decade. The family operation on Mad Tom Road offers pick-your-own raspberries in addition to its popular apple orchard. Owner Tom Smith said his two acres of raspberries accounts for 10 percent of the business, while apples make up the other 90 percent. In addition to the pick-your-own, Mad Tom sells raspberry jam in the fall.
Weather, said Smith, wasn’t the only challenge for berry growers. “It’s very labor-intensive, with the pruning required and the recent spread of invasive pests like brown marmorated stink bug and spotted wing drosophila fruit fly,” he said.
While there are challenges, providing quality fruit and seeing generations of families picking berries is the best part of the business, according to Smith.
“We have many multigenerational families, several four-generation families, and our youngest customer was six days old — and the oldest customer was 104 years old,” he said.