Just want a couple-hundred strawberry plants, a dozen blueberry bushes or 25 apple trees? Then check out Penn State's Fruit Production Guide for the Home Gardener. It will provide all you need to get started. Actually, this is not a bad way to see if the challenges of growing fruit are for you. Better to make your mistakes on a small scale first. Give it a shot and have fun.
On the other hand, let's say you're planning to grow fruit on a commercial scale? Will the sales be retail or wholesale? It may be difficult to break into wholesale markets profitably with a small scale production. And a leap into large scale production is a jump from the high-dive that could break your neck. "How much money can you afford to lose?" is a question one of my colleagues often asks beginning farmers. It applies here. The up-front capital costs are high. And there are no guarantees that those numbers in production budgets will come true. Hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!
Smaller-scale production, for retail sales, allows you to dip your toe in the pool and see how it feels. With retail prices three to four times wholesale, there are additional incentives to this route… maybe as a supplement to existing vegetable production. To explore the important subject of marketing further, consider Penn State's Fruit and Vegetable Marketing for Small Scale and Part-Time Growers. It describes direct marketing options such as subscription or CSAs, pick-your-own, roadside marketing and community farmers markets. It also explores how to evaluate market demand.
Besides prospective customers, it's not a bad idea to see if anyone else in your enterprise has the same passion you do for fruit growing. If you are already producing some kind of an agricultural product, this may be easy to answer. They already know about the long hours, grunt work and other rewards of farming. If this is an entirely new agricultural venture, have an honest discussion about the time, money and effort that you'll be committing to the venture.
By definition, horticultural crops such as fruit are intensively cultivated. Pest control, harvest, marketing and a dozen other tasks wait for no man or woman. Often times, one missed step or an act of Nature can have huge consequences. Fruit growers become very interested (to put it mildly) in spring frosts, low winter temperatures, hail and the intricacies of the lives of plant pests. Also, consider that apples, peaches, cherries, raspberries and blueberries are perennial plants. You'll live with the decisions you make about varieties, planting systems and other key factors for the life of the planting, often decades. Compared to annual crops such as vegetables, where you get a "do-over" every year, consequences are magnified.
"Hey, look at the potential for organic apple sales!" some folks say. Organic certainly is a growing market segment, and where you have the right customers, it can flourish. Organic fruit production is a real challenge. You just might have to possess more fruit growing skill to use the organic, rather than the traditional, approach. Penn State started a commercial-scale organic apple orchard in 2003 at our research station in Biglerville.
So, you want to grow fruit. While it is enticing to explore eating quality of the latest apple cultivars, the mechanics of the newest training systems, or mentally figuring the yields from an acre of red raspberries into dollars, these thoughts should follow a cold-hearted approach to the economics of the operation.
For sample budgets, as well as a wealth of cultural and pest control information on tree fruits and berries, Penn State has two outstanding references. The Mid-Atlantic Berry Guideand the Tree Fruit Production Guide.
Prepared by Scott Guiser, former Penn State Extension Education