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Another cash crop for Iowa?

By Staff | Nov 5, 2010

RICHARD BARNES, founder of Trellis Growing Systems in Fort Wayne, Ind., explains how his trellis system for growing commercial-scale blackberries works.

BOONE – With a sign that promised “$45,000 extra revenue per acre,” the Trellis Growing System booth at this summer’s Farm Progress Show was sure to get farmers’ attention as they passed by.

Richard Barnes, founder of TGS, based in Fort Wayne, Ind., was explaining the potential cash crop to producers to grow on a commercial scale.

Barnes said Iowa was targeted as a prime state for growing blackberries because of the fast-expansion of vineyards and wineries in this state.

“We found that Iowans are open to (niche market) alternatives,” Barnes said. He noted that blackberries are highly sought among wineries, but quickly added that large grocery outlets and processors are also interested in finding these berries from the nation’s heartland.

Much of Iowa’s soil is ideal for blackberries and there are cultivars of the plant that fare well in his climate, Barnes said.

To date, there are no known commercial-scale blackberry producers in Iowa. Barnes said he had signed two farms that committed 20 acres apiece during the Farm Progress Show and had seven others that he thought were 70 percent positive they would sign on.

Barnes said there is a minimum commitment of 10 acres to a new venture.

He said the big difference in planting blackberries over grapes is that a grower can start getting a crop the same year.

Barnes, who raises organic blackberries in the Hoosier state, but is not specifically looking for organic growers, said the secret to successful commercial blackberry growing is in the trellis system he designed.

The system is manufactured by Bedford Manufactured Plastics Inc., in Bedford, Pa. A local Iowa distributor is Fort Dodge Steel.

Barnes said TGS and the Bedford company have formed a partnership to find growers and assist them in getting started.

“We’re creating a whole new industry with this system,” he said. TGS has grant funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to commercialize its trellis system. He said those who sign up work closely with TGS advisors for several years to get the blackberry crop well established.

“We do the site selection,” he said, “and the marketing. It requires onsite refrigeration. Haulers pick up the crop and sell it on the open market for typically higher than the terminal markets.

“And it’s a significant difference.” A typical return on investment, he said, is 30 percent per year.

Pulling out a brochure, Barnes noted that the advantage of growing berries in the cooler climate of the Midwest means harvest is later in the year than in Southern states – typically mid- to late-July to early-September in northern Iowa.

The later harvest means that Iowa berries hit the open market after the peak season from southern states.

He said that Midwest berries typically market above the nationwide average highs for the year.

“There are some southern growers,” Barnes said, “who are looking to get into the Midwest to take advantage of the price jump.”

Another advantage for Iowa growers is that harvesting of blackberries occurs well ahead of traditional row crop harvesting. Berry harvesting is done mechanically.

According to Barnes’ brochure, the typical performance per acre includes:

  • Year 1: Gross revenue: $0; expenses $9,070.
  • Year 2: Gross revenue: $20,280; expenses $15,664; gross margin $4,616.
  • Year 3: Gross revenue: $30,420; expenses $20,393; gross margin $10,027.
  • Year 4: Gross revenue: $40,560; expenses $24,267; gross margin $16,293.
  • Year 5: Gross revenue: $45,630; expenses $25,900; gross margin $19,730.
  • Year 6: Gross revenue: $45,630; expenses $25,900; gross margin $19,730.
  • Summation all six years: Gross revenue: $182,520; expenses $121,195; gross margin $61,325.

Barnes claimed that the system has been researched for 15 years by USDA, with five years of development and field testing by TGS.

The techniques for growing blackberries in the Corn Belt “have been perfected.” He added that the above revenue statements are conservative, indicating that actual income levels can be higher.

He added that blackberry canes have long lives and the trellis system has a 25-year warranty.

“The cross arm rotating design,” he said, “and the cane training process increases yield, allows an open canopy for more sun and air movement, reduces risk of sun scorching and overheating, protects canes form winter temperatures and wind to -26 below zero, and positions fruit to one side of the canopy, reducing harvest labor by 33 percent.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453, or at kersh@farm-news.com.

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