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Florida's Next Cash Crop?: The humble blackberry

Hunting for a more heat-tolerant blackberry
A blackberry grown by University of Florida researchers at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center
Posted at 6:15 AM, Jun 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-13 17:48:40-04

WIMAUMA, Fla. — When we think about Florida and farming, the first fruits that come to mind are oranges and strawberries. But, scientists at the University of Florida are working to find a variety of blackberries that will thrive in our unique climate.

You can find a few varieties of blackberries growing in Florida, but traditionally farmers can't depend on blackberries to grow for-profit and scale.

"Because the blackberries, they need maybe two weeks to six weeks of cold days, you know, temperatures below 45, but above freezing," said Zhanao Deng, a UF/IFAS professor of environmental horticulture at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) and one of the scientists trying to breed and grow blackberries. "Growers said they want more information on blackberry cultivars, horticultural practices, and pest management to produce profitable crops."

Several years ago, farmers asked University of Florida scientists to help them produce blackberries as part of an effort to test whether so-called "alternative" crops could grow in the Sunshine State. Crops like hops, blackberries, pomegranates, and others.

"More growers are trying to grow blackberries or are increasing their acreage for commercial production," Deng said. "We are looking for new varieties that have much less, you know, chilling requirements. So they can, you know, they can produce well in Florida. So they can have, you know, another crop to help them diversify their crop portfolio."

Hundreds attended the very first blackberry field day hosted by UF researchers. Hundreds of berries from different varieties were on display for farmers to taste and rate.

"Diversity in Florida, in my mind, is a way to survive," Gene Altman, the co-owner of Bramble Creek Farms in Hernando County, said. "I'm diversified now. I'm growing passionfruit, figs, along with the blackberries."

Altman said he's grown about two acres of blackberries on his u-pick farm for over a decade. But, he said harvesting good berries is getting harder and harder.

"I planted the blackberries. It was experimental. I was pushing the envelope like I tend to do all the time. And I was one of the first producers in the area," Altman said. "There's always a challenge. They grow year-round," Altman said, adding that they may grow year-round but they don't produce year-round.

Altman wants to learn about varieties that produce without needed chill hours.

"That was critical to me because I'm seeing that pretty heavy in my field this year," Altman said.

According to university officials, "blackberry breeding is not new to UF/IFAS. In the 1950s, UF/IFAS released two varieties, 'Flordagrand' and 'Oklawaha.' Both produced high yields of large, attractive berries, but their thorny canes made them unsuitable for commercial production."

Another benefit to growing blackberries to scale in Florida is giving consumers a fresher berry at a lower cost.

"We market to produce from the growers. And some of our strawberry growers are also starting to do blackberry growing," Jose Carlos Saca, a marketer with Wish Farms, said. "And, we are always looking for good quality fruit and less travel. We don't have to bring it from Georgia or North Carolina if we have it in Florida… it's less loss for the supermarket and more profit to the grower."

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