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Growers Credit NY Berry Project for Successful Start-Up

by Kara Lynn Dunn
If you’re thinking about starting a farm enterprise focused on growing berries, Elaine and Karl Guppy will tell you to go to back to school at Cornell University first.
“We have taken almost every production and business management workshop offered by the Cornell University New York Berry Project,” Elaine says. “The learning opportunities are packed with so much information, it is like taking an entire Cornell course in one day and they are often free.”
The New York Berry Project makes the expertise of Cornell’s Horticulture Department Chair Dr. Marvin Pritts and Cooperative Extension fruit specialists Cathy Heidenreich and Laura McDermott available to growers statewide.
The project has funding from the New York Farm Viability Institute to offer workshops, webinars, on-farm demonstrations, and one-on-one interaction.
Elaine and Karl operate Guppy’s Berry Farm, LLC in West Monroe, NY, and say learning all they could before they began preparing their land was a key to their start-up success.
“The Berry Project was invaluable to helping us get started with wonderful technical support. When we started, we only knew we wanted to plant berries,” Elaine says.
The Guppys have attended workshops, taken field trips, and visited the Cornell berry plots. They avidly read the New York Berry News published 12 times a year with the latest research information from Cornell and the USDA, Berry Barometer month-by-month tips for the best cultural practices and pest management solutions, policy and regulation news, and workshop and event notices. Growers can find it online at www.fruit.cornell.edu/nybn or request a monthly e-mail notification of the contents.
“One of the biggest tips Dr. Pritts gave us early on was to test our soil and make sure we had the right nutrients for blueberries,” Karl says. “We learned everything we could about pH, soil testing, fertilizers, etc.”
In 2008, they removed pinewoods from five acres and, a year later, they established their LLC.
In 2010, they hand-planted 2,000 certified disease-free blueberry plants, painstakingly measuring spacing between plants and rows.
“Cathy’s advice helped us select the best varieties for fresh flavor, shelf life, and disease resistance, which was especially important for us as new growers to not have to deal with issues such as mummy berry, “ Elaine says.
In 2011, when an early frost destroyed nearly one-half of their crop and then Japanese beetles arrived, the Guppys turned to the berry team for training on temperature moderation methods, irrigation, and pest control.
“They are always just a call, email, or workshop away,” Elaine says.
The Guppys dug a pond and added irrigation to their fields. Karl built a motion sensor tower that triggers a radio and light show that has successfully kept deer out of the berries. He constructed bat boxes that attract the night fliers to help control some pests.
The Project leaders helped the Guppys identify USDA grant funding to help pay for development of marketing materials, including product packaging, labels, and signage with a distinctive farm logo.
A primary sales point is the Syracuse Regional Market, about a 35-minute drive from the farm.
“There are a lot of farms selling blueberries at the market – three in my row alone, but people have taken the time to get to know us and our berries and now they search for our booth,” Elaine says.
Their continuing education plan in 2013 has them completing their Good Agricultural Practices certification.
“We are still learning and planning to enlarge our business as we approach retirement. It is great to work with the Cornell people who study berries and know what we should do and not do before we do it,” Karl says.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the experience and knowledge the New York Berry Project shared to get us started,” Elaine adds.
The Guppys see a future with more blueberry plants, a low tunnel for ever-bearing strawberry production, expanded blackberry production, and perhaps some juneberries (they attended a September 2012 workshop on juneberries, which like soil conditions similar to blueberries).
A daughter-in-law has expressed interest in starting a commercial kitchen to make jams and other value-added products.
For its part, the New York Farm Viability Institute (NYFVI) has also funded high tunnel season extension research and value-added crop enhancement opportunities for berry growers.
In 2013, with NYFVI funding, Dr. Pritts began recruiting commercial growers who have been in business at least three years and with sales, preferably of two types of berries, in 2012 to evaluate the use of a berry farm-specific business summary. Horticultural marketing expert Dr. Bradley Rickard with the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell is part of the evaluation team.
The farm business summary project will collect crop production data for developing crop budgets for strawberry, blueberry and raspberry crops, and will collect economic data to create benchmarks for business evaluation. This effort builds on the Cornell-developed Fruit Farm Business Summary successfully used by tree fruit growers to improve their return-on-investment for more than 10 years.
No doubt the Guppys will make good use of that berry business training in the future.
For a comprehensive collection of resources and publications on berry crops, visit the
NY Berry Project website at www.fruit.cornell.edu/berry or contact Cathy Heidenreich at 315-787-2367 or, in Eastern NY, Laura McDermott, 518-746-2562. They work with fruit industry extension and industry contacts statewide.
For an upcoming learning opportunity, mark your calendar for the August 1, 2013 Cornell Fruit Field Day at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. Watch for details at www.fruit.cornell.edu/news_events/index.htm.
Kara Lynn Dunn is a freelance writer, coordinator of the NYFVI series in American Agriculturist magazine, and publicist for the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program. She can be reached at 315-465-7578, karalynn@gisco.net. Brian P. Whattam is a freelance photographer published in several agricultural media outlets. He can be reached at whattamb@frontiernet.net.

Violet Stone

Violet is the coordinator of the Reconnecting with Purpose project, which offers farm and food system educators and change makers a retreat space to explore challenges and renew a sense of inspiration and purpose in their work and lives. She is also a collaborator on the Be Well Farming Project. This project creates reflective spaces for farmers and food producers to connect meaningfully and explore strategies that can ameliorate challenges and bolster quality of life. Violet serves as the NY SARE Coordinator and can help farmers and educators navigate NESARE grant opportunities.

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