David Knop is not scared of risk. That’s why when he looked at the 14 acres behind is home in rural Steeleville he had no problem with planting organic blackberries in hopes for a harvest in the next two years.
Knop, who comes from a background of traditional grain farming in Randolph County, said he had been looking for something to do with the land for some time and when grain prices began to sink in the last few years, he started to think outside the box.
“Grain farming is not the best crop to be in, or field to be in right now. Prices are low,” Knop said.
Knop said he spoke with a friend who had looked into using Indiana-based Trellis Growing Systems to plant berries, but never pulled the trigger.
Knop said this was the last piece of his puzzle.
After the initial talks and planning phase, Knop has finally been able to put plants in the ground. Now he waits — blackberries take one-to-two years to mature and produce a full harvest.
Looking out at one section of his berry farm hedged by woodland, Knop can already see progress. The tiny blackberry plants that are not yet a month in the ground are already showing fresh growth. Knop said he looks forward to taking his first harvest to market and to having families out for “you-pick,” opportunities, making another chance for drawing in tourism to the county.
Large-scale berry farms, like the one Knop has started, are not the norm in Illinois, or even the Midwest. Travis Olinske, small fruit crop adviser for Trellis Growing Systems, said the inconsistent winters can put a strain on farmers — at least those using traditional methods. Olinske said it has been the norm for blackberry farmers to grow plants vertically on a hedgerows system. This creates tall, dense rows of brambles that leave themselves exposed to the elements.
In the last decade, however, Olinski said his company devised a new way that will allow farmers to get consistent yields year-to-year — music to the ears of producers like Knop.
This new system trains plants to grow along low-lying wires. Plants are staggered every five feet with new plants growing along this length and being “rotated down,” or trained to root themselves again in the ground not far from where another plant is located. Olinske said this system of using low-profile trellises allows plants to be covered during cold winters, which is not always possible for hedgerows that can be five to seven feet tall. This combats one of the biggest issues berry farmers have in the Midwest — winter damage. Olinske said it is the hope that this method will bring berry production from the coasts to the Midwest and Knop’s operation is a good start.
Keeping costs low is key to success in farming and Olinske said with an operation Knop’s size this will be a big challenge.
“The biggest thing that is going to be his make or break is how he manages his labor,” Olinske said. Olinski said labor can also be a killer for berry farmers, but with their system of growing, the blackberry blossoms grow in one direction — either the east or the north to protect the fruit from sun scalding — making harvesting that much easier. He said pickers only have to work one side of the row and because the trellises are so small, workers do not have to search deep within a plant to find fruit cutting down in labor costs.
Knop admitted this kind of farming is new to him, but he likes a good challenge — he said he always does his homework before jumping in. However, he admitted having Olinske to work with directly has been incredibly helpful. Olinske has been there to help him every step of the way from building his irrigation system to putting plants in the ground — even with helping go through the hoops of getting his organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Olinske said Knop’s venture is unique in a lot of ways. It is one of only a scant few berry farms in Southern Illinois and is certainly the biggest he knew of. Knop said he hopes the organic certification will also help set him apart. He said it also just seems to be the right thing to do and he hopes it will inspire others in the area to plant consumer-ready crops like fruits and veggies, but maybe even to step up and go organic.
“Maybe this will change things around here. Maybe other people will start,” Knop said, adding that there is a lot of ideal farm land for berry farming.
“There’s a lot of ground like I’ve got that’s not the best for raising corn,” he said.
Source: Isaac Smith, The Southern Illinoisian
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