Blackberries ripen in Florida in May and June, so it’s an ideal time to be thinking about how to grow more of them. Those who produce blackberries in Florida want to increase their yield, and UF/IFAS faculty want to help farmers boost their output.
Unfortunately, a UF/IFAS team also knows that those who grow blackberries face barriers in the market. Like all crops in Florida, blackberries can grow better if they improve their tolerance to the heat, humidity and wet climate of the state.
Zhanao Deng, a professor of environmental horticulture at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC), and his team just won a $76,000 award from the UF/IFAS Research office. Deng and his colleagues plan to decrease obstacles so the blackberry sector can flourish.
The money comes from a program called “Support for Emerging Enterprise Development Integration Teams, or SEEDIT.” Through this program, 19 UF/IFAS teams earned monetary awards to launch or continue work on alternative agricultural enterprises.
“The blackberry has emerged as an important alternative crop for Florida growers,” Deng and his team wrote in their application for the funding. “Many Florida farmers are interested in growing it. Our visits to — and an online survey of — Florida blackberry growers indicated that the most concerning issue is low berry yield.”
There are many reasons blackberries don’t produce as much as they should.
Florida growers don’t have the right varieties to plant, and they don’t have tools to manage blackberry plants and pests. Furthermore, the plants differ significantly from other fruits and berries in how they grow, their requirement for chilling hours, and how farmers can manage their stems and pests.
“To break these chokepoints in an effective and efficient way and to promote a blackberry-based agricultural enterprise in Florida, we have organized this research and Extension team,” Deng said. “We will expand our team and are committed to integrating our experiences and expertise in multiple disciplines to address urgent issues faced by Florida growers and stakeholders.”
Blackberries are the fourth largest-selling berry in the United States, accounting for $549 million in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But in Florida, blackberries constitute only a small portion of the acreage. Deng and his team hope to increase blackberry acreage to 1,000 acres.
UF/IFAS Assistant Professor Shinsuke Agehara, also at the GCREC, has been trying to help farmers grow blackberries. Agehara has been trying to develop chemical strategies that can artificially induce bud break, so blackberries can be productive even without sufficient chill hours.
Meanwhile, blackberry trials at the University of Arkansas show climate-adapted blackberry cultivars under proper plant and pest management produced as much as 17,000 pounds per acre. UF/IFAS trials from 2019 showed only few cultivars could produce 9,000 to 10,000 pounds per acre.
If the average blackberry yield in Florida is increased to 8,000 pounds per acre, the per-acre value could reach as much as $35,360. This yield is achievable in Florida, as one grower reported 14,175 pounds per acre, Deng said.
So even with a moderate yield of 8,000 pounds, blackberry production can be highly valuable, and more growers will want to grow blackberries, Deng said. In fact, if the acreage goes up to 2,000 acres, the value could be $70 million a year.
“These models indicate that blackberry production can be a highly profitable agricultural enterprise in Florida,” Deng said.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.