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Innovative Strategies for Small Fruit Growing

blackberries and raspberries lined up in diagonal lines with a pink background

In his book, The Berry Grower, Blake Cothron shares information on growing and marketing organic small fruits and berries. This book is the essential guide for both new and aspiring organic small fruit growers, and for seasoned farmers looking to produce high-quality organic fruits and products for local markets and self-sufficiency. Today, we share an excerpt from the book, in which the author describes his reasons behind writing the book.

Excerpt from the preface of The Berry Grower

We live on a planet in crisis. As I was writing this book, I deeply contemplated what contribution I could make that would, in its own small way, be of positive assistance in this time of imminent transition. I firmly believe that organic farming, especially with an accompanying shift to localized and more resilient food production, has to happen on a global scale if our civilization and societies are to survive and thrive into the next century and beyond. I feel that education and empowerment through practical, effective knowledge and training is crucial to initiating this changeover.

So, I decided to write a book to help people grow healthy local food—specifically, organic fruit. I didn’t want to write a generic, flashy, marginally useful coffee table book about “how to grow berries.” Those already exist. So, what could I do to set this book apart and make it most useful?

It’s my goal with this book to share innovative strategies for small fruit growing, with pertinent 21st Century information to help progress the organic farming, urban farming, and local food movement. The focus of the local food movement has been intensely about vegetables, which are rapidly grown and profitable. I’m hoping to help some adventurous growers venture into small fruit growing as well, which has many advantages.

This book is a modern strategy guide to how small fruits can work for you in your small or micro farming operation— or in your own backyard business. If you’re just looking to grow organic small fruits for your family, this book will help you. I think backyard growing can not only help create abundance, extra wealth, and food security but is often a perfect starting point to train yourself to prepare to upscale to market growing.

The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.
Bill Mollison, the late permaculture founder and teacher

How can we get to that 10% or even 25%? Will it take disasters, food shortages, pandemics, war, and pestilence to force us out of couch-lock complacency and into our backyards? Will thousands of deaths from E. Coli contaminated strawberries finally convince us to relocate from Costco to the corner farmers market to seek out our fresh produce? Will our governments jump in and save us with truckloads of food? Where would all that food come from? Will we grow it on Mars in hydroponic greenhouses?

The needs of the day are met with solutions that are utterly practical, grounded, and highly efficient. We must utilize ways to grow food and to address other basic needs, while doing minimal harm to the Earth, our dear Mother. Moving beyond “minimal harm” we come to regeneration, in which resources are created, used, and reused in closed loops, so efficiently that more land is put back into habitat and we can begin to heal the harms that have been done.

The Earth is extremely patient and has tolerated a great deal of harm, but that damage is catching up to Her and the systems we rely on are reaching critical breaking points. How long will semi-truck loads of California fruit criss-cross every nook of the country to stock every market in America? How long will the devastated soils of California continue to produce? How long will the mountains flow with sufficient melted snow pack to stock the rivers that irrigate those crops? What happens when they no longer do so?

It’s high time we transition from reliance on trucked-in food and put intense emphasis on local production. It’s going to take educated and inspired people doing it. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 20 + years in this regard but much more work remains to be done. I’m always amazed when I go into the local health food stores, even in major cities,and still see almost no local produce. The niche is wide open, but where are those growers who are ready to take it on?

Despite a lack of enterprising local growers in many places, there continues to be an exponentially growing interest in local food production itself, including fruit. This includes edible perennial landscaping in urban city parks, mini-orchards in suburban backyards, homesteading and self-sufficiency, as well as organic market farms looking to diversify their product line and increase customer draw.

There is intense interest right now in growing tree fruits: apples, pears, citrus, pawpaws, etc. However, this book is focused primarily on the sometimes undervalued “small” fruits: berries, figs, grapes, and even tomatoes. These are primarily produced on shrubs, bushes, or vines and therefore have many strategic advantages over growing tree fruits. For instance: small fruits exhibit comparatively rapid yields compared to tree fruits: only six months to a year for many small fruits to get into production, as opposed to 2–5 years or more for tree fruits to come into useful production. Plus, the square footage needs of a tree (as well as the years to production) is sometimes more than an urbanite or backyard grower can afford. Trees can shade out gardens or solar panels that need full sun, while small fruits can fit almost anywhere, even in containers on a balcony.

This is not to say small fruits are superior or that tree fruits aren’t important and vital for feeding the world— of course they are. Both are a specialty of mine and something I grow plenty of on our organic research farm in Kentucky. But this book is focusing on small fruits for (often) small spaces, on a small planet facing very big challenges.

As you research fruit growing you will discover the limitations of what is available. Many older fruit growing books are nearly obsolete or at best teaching inefficient and outdated techniques. That includes the advice, fruit varieties, and strategies for growing fruit offered in fruit growing books published in the 1970s, 1980s, or even up to the early 2000s. A lot has changed. New, more efficient techniques, tools, and strategies are out there. The market has undergone huge shifts. New and ever-arriving invasive insects are a constant threat. How can you best strategize for that? Many old, popular cultivars are no longer popular or even available now or have been surpassed by new, superior ones. Which current ones are vastly superior? Climate change has changed the game. How can you best prepare for all these shifts and challenges?

I’ve spent over 20 years successfully growing organic fruit and vegetables across a number of varied locations in the USA and nearly 10 years ago created and currently co-operate a successful commercial organic plant nursery. On our farm we grow over 15 species of organic small fruits. I’ve marketed organic fruit and hundreds of types of horticultural products, and spent hundreds of hours researching growing organic fruit. I have also taught a number of in-person courses and all that experience has gone into this book.

Throughout the book, I’ve aimed for meaningful, highly accurate information gleaned from my experiences, both professional and as a lifelong fruit explorer and grower. To include an array of useful perspectives and strategies, I’ve included valuable stories and first-hand experiences from many other very successful growers across the USA. From there you will need to seek out local growers, grower’s associations, regional publications, online grower communities, and your local agricultural extension offices in order to zero in on the most accurate locally-oriented information.

Finally, I believe we can do it. I believe in the utter resiliency, intelligence, and adaptability of the human being, as well as the grace of the Divine, both of which I believe will be needed for us to survive this global transition in consciousness, from exploitation and devastation to integrity, unity, and harmony.

picking blackberries off the vine

Author Blake Cothron

Blake Cothron is an organic farmer, nurseryman, writer, musician, and speaker, with over 20 years' experience in organic agriculture, botany, horticulture, and growing food. He is the co-owner and co-operator of Peaceful Heritage Nursery, a 4-acre USDA Certified Organic research farm, orchard, and edible plant nursery. Author of Pawpaws: The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide, he has also written for Permaculture Design magazine and various online publications. Blake has an educational blog and YouTube channel devoted to fruit growing, and he is an educator with the Organic Association of Kentucky. He divides his time between farming, research, writing, beekeeping, gardening, travel, yoga, meditation, and being a husband and father in beautiful Kentucky.

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