by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht of Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market in Riverhead, NY, recently profiled her operation during “Growing, Maintaining and Marketing a Successful Organic U-Pick Berry Operation” as part of the recent virtual NOFA-NY conference.
Kaplan-Walbrecht said she’s learned much about succeeding in growing berries at her 50-acre farm, which she started in 2001. She sells through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, three farmers markets and seasonally from the farm.
“There are varieties for every zone, so you need to pick the right varieties,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. Her farm is rated at Zone 7 for hardiness. “We get a buffering effect, which is nice in the spring; it makes things easier for strawberries. We have some very warm springs which push blossoms earlier.”
Customers who want to pick their own check in to get a map, instructions and containers. So far, the concept has been working. “With my experience, there’s almost an unlimited demand for organic, U-pick strawberries,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “It’s worth doing … We’re basically the only organic farm doing it on a large scale … It’s something people remember doing as children and want to reproduce that for children. There’s immediate gratification.”
People want to eat the fruit in the field – and she does not discourage that practice. She cautioned other farmers to not “get mad at people” for doing so.
Kaplan-Walbrecht added blueberries to the farm six years ago, considering them a good bridge crop for the season, since strawberries begin Memorial Day weekend and peter out by the third weekend in June, just as the earliest blueberries begin to ripen.
Since blueberries grow well in sandy soil, they provide an ideal way for Kaplan-Walbrecht to use those areas on her farm; however, she cautioned that since blueberries are slow growing, farmers need to plan ahead. It took her four years before she had grown a crop of blueberries she could offer as a U-pick harvest.
Blackberries have also proven a good draw for the farm. She prefers the Chester variety, as the canes do not bear thorns. “They’re vigorous and hearty. They yield a lot so that we don’t even have enough pickers,” she said. She plants Chester blackberries and Bluecrop, Blueray and Jersey blueberries.
Kaplan-Walbrecht advised cultivating strawberries between April and May for best results; however, more northern farms may need to wait longer. “I’m not going to say that it’s easy, but you should start and pick a method and see what works best for you,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “We’ve tried almost every type of method: black plastic, silver plastic, black landscape fabric … single beds, two rows, beds. We’ve mulched in between with straw. It’ll depend on your conditions and what works for you.”
Currently, her farm uses beds with spacing based upon her tractor dimensions. She grows 32-inch beds in two rows, placed 12 inches apart in each row. She plants spring varieties and the Chandler variety, a fall planting type that needs row cover and offers a one- to two-year yield.
As with many other organic crops, weeds present an issue. “We get a lot of weeds and it’s hard to keep the berries cultivated and irrigated,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “It can be hard to get them to root and keep the weeds down. You can keep them as long as you can and when they’re too weedy, get rid of them and keep planting. It’s not like a tree, where once you plant them, you maintain them forever.”
She said she’s tried numerous strawberry varieties. Recently, she planted the aforementioned Chandler; AC Wendy, an early variety; Honeoye, an early to mid-season variety; Everbearing, great for pots or in raised beds, but not very winter hardy; and Seascape, a new variety. She replaces her strawberries every two to four years.
From her experience, customers view strawberries as a seasonal, a May through June crop, not a fruit they want to pick all summer. She does grow Everbearing in pots to sell in the farm’s garden center because they work well for patio strawberries and for home gardeners.
For cultivating brambles and blueberries, Kaplan-Walbrecht said plants should be two feet apart in the rows and rows should be 10 feet apart. This enables her to use a rotary or flail mower or riding lawn tractor. “If the row is the issue, we’ve used weed whackers,” she said. “Machetes are just as effective as weed whackers. You have to go through in the spring and midsummer. It’s very time consuming.”
She thinks that for best results, planting into black plastic the first year can help keep down weeds, and then mulching with compost and wood chips each year after. Any plastic breaking down can be removed. “We got a lot of free wood chips from landscapers,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “A lot of times they’re looking for a place to dump. If you have the space and can make connections, you can get a lifetime of free wood chips.”
As an organic grower, because she doesn’t use herbicides and pesticides, her keyword is “vigorous,” because she wants her brambles to get ahead of the weeds. The ones that grow quickly do well.
Cross pollination is not a problem for growing brambles, as growers are not producing seeds. “They’re pollinated by bees and insects, but they can go to different types of brambles and it won’t affect your berries,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said.
Mugwort is a weed threat to berry operations. When the weed began overtaking some strawberry rows on her farm, Kaplan-Walbrecht weed whacked over the top of it so U-pick customers could find the berries. The next season, she pulled up the plastic and replanted the area. She had used a cultivator designed for strawberries, among other things; however, since it can also rip the plastic, “now we use a shank cultivator that’s more straightforward,” she said. The farm has also used an organically approved herbicide along the plastic.
Eve and her husband Chris have not shied from experimentation on the farm. When people began asking for out of season for berries, they tried growing in a greenhouse. They had seen a farm in Japan that offered berry picking during winter. They used wooden frames to hold organic potting soil bags, opened at the top. Although they grew well, “we had almost no interest in people picking them,” Eve said. “They wanted to pick them in the fields.”
Eventually, spider mite issues came in. Despite using beneficial insects, they could not manage to control the pests, so they disassembled the operation.
The couple has considered hydroponic growing however, they felt it would be too expensive to set up and that their customers’ interest is in picking berries growing from the ground.
Kaplan-Walbrecht encouraged anyone wanting to push their season to start earlier to use floating row covers. “If they bloom and you take it off and they get a frost, you’ll lose your crop,” she warned.
She’s also used netting to prevent birds from stealing her crop. “You pretty much need this once you have a larger yield,” she said.