Big Profits Worth Growing Strawberry Fields forever
With interest in berries growing due to their potential health benefits, it's no surprise that consumer demand has turned the fruits into promising alternative cash crops. So why aren't more Ohio farmers growing them?
Sandy Kuhn, berry coordinator at Ohio State's Piketon Research and Extension Center, attributes the uncertainty to factors ranging from plant hardiness and availability to labor intensive harvesting and large initial investments with slow profit turnaround.
"Berry growing is a real challenge for farmers, but they are very open to it," Kuhn says. "If farmers are patient enough, berries can produce a high return of investment for them, more than corn or beans. There's such a demand for berries."
Such is the case at Beuhler's Market in Wooster, Kuhn says. The market buys as many raspberries from Ohio producers as possible because the produce sells so well.
The most current census shows that berries, including strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, are being grown on more than 1,300 acres on approximately 570 farms throughout Ohio.
Most Ohio berry farms are small pick-your-own operations, but a few farmers have turned their fields into larger enterprises, Kuhn says. One farmer in Wilmington is growing 20 acres of raspberries, while another in South Solon has 25 acres.
Research currently being conducted at the Centers at Piketon involves testing winter-hardy berry varieties.
Survivability of the plants is the biggest production issue farmers face, Kuhn says. Low supply and high demand is resulting in quick mass production, which may kill the plants under Ohio's harsh winter temperatures.
Farmers are hesitant to grab hold of berry growing because of the stringent economics of the crop. According to Ohio State Extension agricultural economists, a black raspberry enterprise requires five to six years of growth before a farmer makes a profit.
Specialty crops generally yield higher profits than field crops on a per-acre basis, but they require more management and labor per acre than field crops.
For example, Extension specialists estimate that strawberries yield $495 in profit per acre, compared to $16 per acre on no-till soybeans. However, strawberry fields require 75 hours of labor, compared to only two hours in the soybean fields.
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