Mowing the sudex cover crop at the blueberry site at Five Elements Farm. The sudex was sown to compete against weeds, and was incorporated to add organic matter to the soil. Photo by J. Bozzelli.
While adding an orchard of apples or peaches may be a large undertaking, requiring equipment that vegetable farms may not have on hand, small fruit crops like strawberries and blueberries can be a manageable addition to your farm to further diversify your crop offerings.
Strawberries are a good crop for a first time fruit grower. Strawberries produce high quality fruit for about two to three years, allowing them to fit into a larger field rotation schedule. They also grow low to the ground, so most of the equipment you use for your vegetable production can be used to care for strawberries. There are a few things to keep in mind though. Strawberries will need a year to establish before a crop is harvested if June-bearers are being grown (slightly less if using a plasticulture system); day-neutrals produce a crop the same year they are planted, but need 2-3 months to become established. Strawberries also flower early in the season, so overhead irrigation may be needed for frost control. Either trickle or overhead irrigation is needed to keep plants from becoming water stressed due to their shallow root systems.
The Penn State Start Farming model plot project has two sites growing June-bearing strawberries under two management systems. Good Work Farm is using a matted row system, and McCleaf's Orchards is growing berries with a plasticulture system. Both plots incorporate best management practices, which started with a year of soil preparation. Strawberries perform much better in fields that have been rotated for a year to remove soil borne disease pressures. Sudex and rye were used as cover crops to reduce the potential for soil borne diseases, maintain soil quality, and to compete against weed species. After planting the strawberries, the plots were regularly scouted for insect and fungal pests. Further information on these planting systems and their management practices can be found in the Penn State Ag Alternatives Fact Sheet on strawberry production.
Blueberries are another good fruit for vegetable growers looking to get into small scale fruit production. Blueberries have become very popular, thanks in part to their high levels of antioxidants, which play an important role in human health. Blueberries require at least two years to establish before producing a crop, and the initial investment is relatively large. However, once established, smaller plantings have minimal equipment requirements and continue to produce fruit for up to fifty years if properly managed.
A blueberry model plot has been established at Five Elements Farm in Western PA. Best management practices for this site have included a year of land preparation with cover crops and soil amendments to increase organic matter, lower soil pH, and reduce populations of plant parasitic nematodes. Blueberries require high organic matter soils with a pH between 4.5 and 5.0, so sulfur was applied to lower soil pH. Sudex was sown to compete against weed species, and was then incorporated to add organic matter to the soil. The sudex was followed by a fall rapeseed cover crop.
Rapeseed was incorporated and the bushes were planted in early spring of 2016.The planting was scouted for pests and diseases throughout the growing season. Four different varieties were planted to extend the picking season from July through early September. This allows for both a longer marketing window, and for the grower to spread out harvest labor.
If you would like to add fruit to your farm to diversify your product offerings, strawberries and blueberries may be excellent crops to begin with. For more information on growing these and other crops, review the Penn State Ag Alternative fact sheets.
More information on the berry model plots can be found at Start Farming, Models for the Future.
Laying out plastic beds for the plasticulture production system at McCleaf's Orchards. Strawberry production utilizes many pieces of equipment vegetable growers may already have on their farm.