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The Happy Berry
Aerial photo of The Happy Berry farm taken during early spring/dogwood season

Production Methods

If you think that the berry business is a get rich quick scheme -- think again. Our income tax results were in the red from 1979 until 1988. From 1989 till 1994, it has been a "pretty much" break-even situation but our net worth increased during those years. In 1998 we incorporated. In 2005 we made a nice little supplement that helped pay for home maintenance in 2005.

We have 5 acres (approximately 3106 + plants less 400 that have been lost to disease and pestilence by 2001) of blueberries and 2 acres of erect blackberries, 0.8 acres of semi-erect blackberries, and 0.3 acres of raspberries.

Blueberries

The first 3 acres of blueberries were planted in the winter of 80-81 with the varieties of Climax, Tifblue and Delight. Because of consumer response to Climax and Delight we added another ½ acre of each in the winter of 83-84. The winter of 85-86 we added 500 Centurion with 100 Powderblue for pollination. Because of a slump in mature berries between Climax and Tifblue we added in about 200 Premier Plants. Up till 1994 anytime we lose plants from root rot (Phytophthora Cinnamonii) we use Premier as the replant because of its tolerance to the disease.

Starting in 1994, because of a pollination deficit problem with Tifblue and because this variety splits badly when it rains, we started cutting down some of the Tifblue bushes (300 bushes) and replacing them with Britewell, Powderblue and Centurion. We cut the bushes to the ground after harvest, allowed them to re-sprout and then sprayed with Roundup. This technique did not worked well. If we do more, we will pull them up. We also believe there is a replant problem with rabbiteye blueberries. Re-growth is much slower in these rows. In 2006 - 2007 we plan on pulling Delight and replanting all vacant spaces with newer varieties. Our new mix will be Robeson - 2 wk earlier than Premier, Premier - mid June, Columbus – July, Ira – July in frost pockets, Onslow - late July, Powderblue, and Centurion - Late July.

All of the berries are irrigated. We use city water for irrigation. In 1989 we used a little better than 1.2 million gallons. In 1991 we used almost none. In 2001 water cost $2.70 per thousand gallons. The price of water is going up again in 2006. We have gotten DNR to use submarine navigation technology to locate a potential well site but have not been able to find a well driller who will work where we want the well plus it is expensive. The well issue is very high risk as we need 50 gallons per minute and that is very rare in our area.

Our planting procedure consists of: (1) establishing fescue and fertilizing it to carry phosphorous and calcium deeper into the soil profile without plowing, (2) killing the fescue out in strips with Roundup, (3) planting blueberries in 2 ft. diameter holes generally at Thanksgiving with a 5 gallon bucket of very old saw dust (we experienced nitrogen deficiency and therefore went to ¼ cubic ft of dark peat moss in our next 2 acres and now we use compost for any replants), (4) in the first year we gave them 1/8 cup per month, starting in March continuing through the summer, of ammoniacal-based 19-19-19 and let the cold weather injure what it will. We delay application if there has not been three inches of rain or we get behind in other work. We abandoned ammonium sulfate due to low pH problems. We have limed 1 year and used gypsum for 2 years to raise our soil calcium levels at the rate of 1 ton per acre in the row. We have a magnesium toxicity problem but it is much improved with liming and the addition of gypsum. We still have a magnesium problem in poorly drained areas due to anaerobic fermentation solubilizing the magnesium. We have a manganese deficiency in areas where we used mulch high in cellulose, which in time resulted in excessive calcium levels. In subsequent years we increase our fertilizer to ¼, ⅓ and ½ cup per plant per month but limit applications to just the spring months of March, April and May. If they slow down we will go out and give them an extra little bit. For the first 10 years we used a balanced fertilizer such as triple 19, since then, 16-4-8. We do not worry about fall or winter injury. It has not been a problem except in nursery plants gotten from a warmer climate. In fact, because of the lack of significant winter injury we believe that you can plant in the fall just as soon as water levels return to field capacity without supplemental irrigation. After 20 years of experience we feel that once the bushes fill the space the fertilizer rate can be decreased significantly. Our current experience would suggest reducing it by ⅓ in the 6th year, continuing at this level in subsequent years. With weaker varieties than Tifblue, if they have a heavy crop, we give additional 20 units of N/ac as 16-4-8 or on an as needed basis.

In 2006 we started investigation organic fertilizers. The cost is significantly more. We are evaluating plots using organic sources. We anticipate fuel prices to continue to increase [nitrogen is captured from air using fuel] and thus this gap in price will narrow. Organic fertilizers recycle waste material from other agricultural enterprises such feather from chickens. We also think our customers are willing to pay more for us use organic sources. It is the environmentally responsible thing to do.

Weed management is difficult. Hand weeding takes too much time although we do a lot of hand weeding. Herbicides are generally Casaron, Simazine and/or Surflan in the first and second years and adding Karmex in subsequent years for blueberries. We have learned from our neighbors that Sinbar is pretty hot and on our mosaic soils it is hard to avoid injury. We generally use it at ⅛ of a pound/ac. We have since 2004 stopped using Simazine in blueberries. We tank mix these materials with Round-up in the late spring and use Rely if touch up is needed later. Our problem weeds are horse nettles, maypops (Passiflora 2 spp), briars (Smilax), Virginia creeper, poke and blackberries. We generally go with a winter application and a late spring application. Test plots have revealed that the Delight variety is sensitive to Velpar (when it was legal in SC). We have used wick applications of Round-up and frequently use hand pulling on hard to control perennials. Research has shown that diuron [Karmex] and simazine interfere with the fruiting structure that produces the spores, which cause mummy berry primary infections. We now make sure we time winter application prior to March first. These fruiting structures are normally produced in March or very early April.

In early years our pruning system in blueberries consists of hedging as soon after harvest as possible. We were always late! The later we are the lower the yield next season. The tractor will run over drooping canes anyway and the customers will not pick what they can't reach so hedging low hanging and the high shoots does minimal damage. We discontinued this practice. We tried to cut them at an angle so light and foliage develops low down in the bush. In the winter we remove ⅕ to ⅙ of the oldest canes in bushes 6 years and older. We make the cuts at 12 to 18 inches from the ground, being sure to select the oldest canes. Pruning this way controls bush height. In addition, we cut hangers in the row at this time. The big stub is so Oberea stem borers do not make it to the crown if they invade the young vigorous shoots. Eventually after the planting got to be 20 + years old we had to start cutting some of the big stubs. Oberea continues to be a problem.

We are promoting the hedgerow system and make no attempt to keep the crown small for mechanical picking. We try to keep pruning time down to 10 minutes per bush. Delight is the variety most likely to have cold-injured cambium at the base of the cane so we try to leave them until last to prune. In general the delight variety has a shallow root system, is susceptible to leaf rust and falls into alternate year bearing. Although it is a big berry we will take it out in 2006.

For pollination we have brought in honeybees at $44/hive for good strong hives in the late 1980's. Usually about 7 or 8 hives along with the wild population will give us 30 + bees per bush any time we want to count. Trachea and Varrow mites have essentially wiped out the feral honeybees in our area since the early 90's. We have a lot of carpenter bees and we agree with the literature that the combination is not very effective. We have a few blueberry bees and you can sure tell the area where they are. We have planted Redbud trees for early forage for blueberry bees. Their populations are very variable from year to year. In response to this situation we tried growing Japanese orchard bees. We started with 650 bees in 1988. I am here to report that they did not work.

To promote bumblebees we added 1 acre of blackberries (Navaho, Shawnee, Arapaho, and Choctaw) as both bee forage and a sellable crop. We have also added Butterfly bushes (Buddleia) on the ends of rows as bee forage. Zoe and Ann started experimenting with cut flowers in 1992. The Buddleia is intended to supplement this effort as well as serve as bee forage. We also planted Bicolor Lespedeza around the entire farm perimeter in 1994 as late summer bumblebee forage. In 1996 we jumped from 1- 2 bumblebees per bush to 10 - 12 per bush. We gibbed (Pro Gib [a growth stimulator]) the plants in 1991 by backpack spraying. The purpose was to compensate for pollination and as a rescue treatment when frost occurs. This organic practice has become standard since 1992 and is done each year.

Blackberries

The blackberries have sold so well we have continued to expand this acreage.

We used a similar procedure, planting fescue then killing it out for erect and semi erect blackberries. We plant root pieces 2 ft. apart, plugs 3 ft. apart, and handled plants of Navaho 18 inches apart. The varieties in order of ripening are Choctaw, Arapaho, Shawnee, and Navaho. In 1996, we added the semi-erect varieties, Triple Crown and Chester, on a "Stiles Shift Trellis". These were planted 6 ft. apart. In 2000 because of unknown virus problems in Triple Crown and Raspberry bushy dwarf in Navaho we took these varieties out and replanted with Apache and Kiowa 2001. We are experiencing severe problems with oak root rot in the Chester variety and severe virus problems in the Apache variety so that in 2004 we took them back out. We have planted desert muscadine grapes [black - Supreme, Ison, Nesbit and Coward and bronze - Early Fry, Late Fry, Janet and Dixieland] in the Stiles shift trellis area. The shift trellis was bolted into an upright position.

We generally fertilize the blackberries at 80 units per season. We apply 40 units at bud break and 40 units immediately after harvest.

Weed control in blackberries is Gramoxone plus 0.75 lb ai/ac of Simazine immediately after harvest and pruning out the old floracanes followed by a fall application in September or October and/or a spring application prior to bud break all at the same rates if needed. It is usually applied by a tractor-mounted sprayer or in difficult locations backpack in 30 gallons of water per acre.

We prune blackberries by hedging first and then cutting the floracanes out. We feel it is important to do each variety right after harvest. This is especially important on the late maturing Navaho and those susceptible to double blossom disease. We will come back tip the blackberries at least one or more times. Some varieties like Chickasaw will overbear. It is important to prune them back enough that good crop of replacement canes is obtained.

Raspberries

In order to grow raspberries we selected a north and east facing slope so we would good water drainage to avoid root rot and it would cooler missing the late afternoon sun. We installed overhead sprinkling to provide evaporative cooling.

The raspberries we are trying or have tried to establish are Nova, Heritage, Josephine, Caroline, Jaclyn, PCS1 and PCS2 and Mandarin. We are also trying the black raspberry Jewel and Purple raspberry Royalty. After 10 years of trying the results are not good. Phythphora root rot, virus, spur blight, and botrytis have been severe. The Caroline, Jaclyn, Josephine, Royalty and Jewel are still in the ground in 2006. We have planted some of the raspberry area with Chester it is a good producer and is the latest blackberry around. We hope that area will be oak root rot free. Again we used the plowing with tall fescue and roundup as a site preparation procedure except where we are taking out varieties. Then we rototill and incorporate lime and phosphorus covering with straw immediately to prevent erosion.

Grapes

We were in need of a late summer crops to extend our season and full fill farm market expectations. Desert muscadines seem to “fit the bill.”

We fertilize the muscadine grapes the first of April, March and June. When the vines are young after 1.5 inches of rain or mid month we apply calcium nitrate. Once they have reached full production we limit the application of fertilizer to 3 applications or less if the crop is reduced. Blue tubes are used to get the plants to the wire in the first and second year. This also protects the young plants from herbicides. We prune muscadines last just before bud break. They always bleed but this not a problem. We space the fruiting spurs out 6 inches along the cordon. Leaving 2 to 3 buds per spur.

Elderberries

Initially, to protect streams on the farm we grew black willow for live staking around the lake Keowee. This idea result very little sales. We needed to make the streambeds and the associated riparian areas a productive area, which was not a source of weed seeds. This are also needed to filter out anything that might be washing from other production areas on the farm so as to maintain the water quality in the stream. Elderberries are well adapted to this area are vigorous and aggressive

We conducted a variety trial for several years and based that trial selected the cultivars Nova and York for an expanded the planting. The varieties tried were John, Adam, Korsar, Sambo, Samyl, Samdal, Black beauty and most recently Scotia was added. We also have two selections of wild elderberries. Nova and York were selected based on size, flavor and vigor. We just plant them and leave them keeping the weeds cut so they can shade out the competition. Our pruning system is to take older canes out after they have seen three fruiting summers. They have several problems.

Figs

We had areas in the blueberries that were planted in perched water tables on the sides of hills and the blue berries were doing very poorly due to root rot and manganese toxicity from anaerobic oxidation. Or were heavily impacted by pine voles. We planted these areas to Figs. We live stake [from proven local trees] these and protect with straw through the first winter. Nursery Brown Turkey have been poor producers. We have tried several varieties but local Brown Turkey and Celeste do the best. Celeste is a little later than Brown Turkey and helps spread the season a little. La purple will survive. Golden Celeste winter kills to the ground every year. We do not fertilize them. We prune them heavily going for the summer crop and keeping them in picking range from the ground. The spring crop is poor and low quality if it occurs. They have very few problems. One problem is when they are not picked daily. Bees eat wholes in the sides of the figs lapping up the sugar. We have never seen a bird peck a fig although that is a popular assumption. When a picker reaches for a fig he sometimes gets stung. The fig is related to Poison Ivy and some people react to the sap or being rubbed by the foliage. We encourage using long sleeve shirts when picking figs. It is important not prune them till late to avoid winter sun scald to the branches and prune it out if it does occur. Root knot is present but is not a problem.

The Future

Our plan for the future is to add seedless grapes. We are worried about Pierces disease but plan on vaccinating them with an avirulent strain of the causal agent, Xylella fastidious. Who knows if it will work!