The major challenge of growing blackberries in Ohio is that the fruit lacks a large degree of winter hardiness, says Gary Gao, an OSU Extension specialist and associate professor of small fruit crops at the OSU South Centers at Piketon.
"If the region experiences a mild winter, such as this winter, the plants will come through winter fine and produce a good crop," he says. "But if the winter is too cold, as are many Ohio winters, the harsh weather can cause severe injuries to blackberry crops.
"If blackberry floral canes are damaged in the winter months and the blooms are killed, then growers won't have a crop. All varieties in Ohio have that problem."
To improve growers' odds of having their blackberry plants survive and thrive through a cold Ohio winter, Gao and his colleagues are comparing the hardiness of four Polish blackberry varieties with the hardiness of three standard blackberry varieties typically grown in Ohio to determine how well the Polish varieties perform in the state, Gao says.
Researchers are also testing production methods, including plants grown in fields with no protection, in fields using high tunnels and in a field using a rotatable cross arm trellis, he says.
"We want to help growers reduce their risk in order to plant more blackberry varieties that will produce a more reliable yield," Gao says. "Growers are seeking more reliability in order to ensure they are more likely to produce a crop."
The demand from consumers for blackberries has grown in recent years, due much in part to the fruit's health benefits. Add to that the increasing consumer demand for more locally grown foods, and growers who add blackberries to their lineup of fruits and vegetables can help boost their profit potential, Gao says.
"Growers just can't grow enough of them," he says. "Growers are selling everything they can grow.
"It's a missed opportunity for growers to make money. Demand is much stronger than the supply."
Expansion of blackberry acreage in Ohio is one of the goals of the research, which is funded through a $4,000 grant from the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association as part of the Ohio Vegetable and Small Fruit Research and Development Program, Gao says.
One goal of the trials is to significantly increase Ohio's blackberry acreage, which currently stands at around 400 acres, Gao says.
Although blackberries are more challenging to grow in the state, the return on investment is well worth the effort, he said.
For example, a grower who produces 2,000 pounds of blackberries per acre can earn $4,600 per acre in gross revenue, he said.
"Blackberries are easier to grow than blueberries, require a slightly acidic soil, which is more common in Ohio," Gao says. "And the yields for blackberries can vary significantly.
"For example, Chester (a variety) can yield 5,000 pounds one year or 10,000 pounds in another year. We have been able to get 9,000 pounds of blackberries with Chester at Piketon, and Triple Crown can produce 9,000 pounds one year or hardly anything during the next year."
Growers who are interested in getting started in blackberry production can call the OSU South Centers at 740-289-2071, ext. 123, to get more information.