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February 1, 2002

Looking for a new crop?
Blackberries bear consideration!


By Lana Robinson
Field Editor

Two years ago, Texas Cooperative Extension Horticulturist Marty Baker of Overton predicted that blackberry plantings in East Texas would soon overtake blueberries and strawberries. Thanks to several successive high-yielding years, and a couple of disease-resistant, thornless varieties with superior shelf-life—Arapaho and Apache—Baker's prediction is coming to pass.

"I'm usually not a thorn-free fan, but these are good ones," Baker told growers in a horticultural session during the Blackland Income Growth (B.I.G.) Conference in Waco last month."They are resistant to rust diseases and blossom diseases like double blossom. They are the longest keeping blackberries of all. These berries have a five- to six-day shelf life, without softness or bleeding. Bleeding is what kills you in the berry business. If you refrigerate, they'll last up to 16 days without deterioration."

Arapaho and Apache varieties are well-suited for Texas because they produce with only 700 to 750 chilling hours.

"Chilling hours have been a problem. Navaho plays out after awhile because it needs at least 1,000 chill hours. The warm Texas winters hurt production," said Baker, noting that Navaho would probably fare better north of Tyler.

According to the Overton horticulturist, thornless blackberry varieties are typically not as vigorous as the thorny ones, like Brazos or Shawnee. But Arapaho and Apache are prolific. It's easy to pick four to six gallons in an hour, he said.

Arapaho, released in 1993 by the University of Arkansas, is a thornless variety that produces a medium sized, firm, high-quality fruit over a four-week season. Arapaho is on erect vines that do not require a trellis, and bear on primocanes, or the previous year's growth. After harvest in summer, the canes that fruited are cut back (or they will die back in fall naturally), and new shoots grow which will fruit the next spring. Arapaho is the earliest thornless blackberry in existence. It is very winter hardy with no disease problems. The berries are large and very firm, with excellent flavor. An important, positive characteristic of the Arapaho is its small seed size.

Largest of the Arkansas thornless, Apache was the highest yielding of the thornless options in research trials conducted at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. Introduced by Dr. John Clark and Dr. James Morris—after 11 years of trait selection, according to Baker—Apa-che's flavor is very good, rated between that of Arapaho and Navaho; soluble solids (percent sugar) averages 10.7 percent. This variety is erect and stands up better than most all varieties. No disease problems have been found, and no signs of orange rust have been spotted in any of the plantings. It has excellent quality, and a glossy black conical-shaped fruit.

Blackberry industry grows

East Texas acreage for 2001 was close to 700 acres and growing. Harvest is from mid-May and through July 10. Cultivated blackberries are hand harvested and usually sold as pick-your-own or wholesale in 12-pint flats. Baker said the fruit should be picked every three days to obtain a maximum sugar content.

"A characteristic of several blackberries, including the Apache and Arapaho, is that if you leave them on one more day after they appear to be ready, they swell up—kind of like a peach—and have more sugar," Baker advised. "Arapaho and Apache bring anywhere from $18 to $20 a flat."

Baker said blackberry growers are utilizing drip irrigation to offset dry periods and row covers to protect the crop from late freezes.

"Because of the high dollars per acre that growers are earning with blackberries, they are cutting the risk with these practices," Baker said. "Drip irrigation is becoming increasingly popular in East Texas."

Row covers make it possible to save blackberries from late freezes, an advantage peach producers don't have.

"So many growers are going this route because of the high yields and high profitability," Baker said. "There is definitely a bright future for blackberries. Prices may decrease with increased production, but I'm confident they will hold their own."

He said growers are picking one gallon of berries for every two feet of row, with prices up to $8 per gallon at farm stands and $4 per half-pint in some urban markets.

On the consumer level, blackberries are a healthy food and an important ingredient in green teas.

"You can chop the leaves for green teas, put them in a zip lock bag with some water and freeze. Actually, there's more health in the flower first, then the leaves, then the fruit. Blackberries, blueberries and cranberries, in that order, have natural chemicals that are good. Fiber, also. My wife and I freeze them in bags and eat them every morning on cereal," said Baker.