Traveling Professors

New York State Berry Growers Association Marvin Pritts chin state research

Traveling Professors

How Overseas Research & Information Sharing Benefits Our Farms

By Marvin Pritts

Ever wonder what those Cornell professors do when they run off to another country? Oftentimes it’s to attend a conference, but occasionally we are asked to help a particular group of farmers with their production practices. Some may ask if we should be helping farmers in other countries—won’t they just end up competing with us in New York? And given that there are problems here at home, shouldn’t Cornell faculty just stay put and work on solving local problems?

In April, I had a chance to visit Chin State in the country of Myanmar. This country has been relatively isolated from the rest of the world, as it was under a military dictatorship for 50 years. Recently, it has had elections, so a democratic government is now in place. However, some of the outlying regions continue to have ethnic violence. Chin signed a peace treaty with the federal government in 2016, so it is now safe for foreigners to enter.

New York State Berry Growers Association Marvin Pritts farming research

 

Although it is now safe to travel to Chin, this region has been cut off from the rest of Myanmar, and the world, for most of its existence. There is no real industry in Chin State. Travel to the capital city, Hakha, is an 11-hour drive on dirt roads from the nearest city with an airport (which has just one flight a day). Farming villages are even farther from Hahka. The roads in this state are one-lane, steep, and curved, with no guardrails and 1,000-foot dropoffs. During the rainy season, roads become impassable because of mud and landslides. Most of the country speaks Burmese and is Buddhist, while many different languages are spoken in Chin and Chin people are mostly Christian. All of these differences reinforce the isolation and makes education in this region difficult.

There is little to no flat land in Chin State. The hillsides are too steep for most grazing animals, except for goats. But having goats is risky, because they can escape through fences and eat valuable crops. The rain stops after the rainy season, so farmers then endure six months of drought. The capital city is too far to take goods to market, especially given the state of the roads.

People who live in villages in Chin are malnourished. It is estimated that 40 percent of the population suffers from protein, vitamin, and mineral deficiencies. Our task was to visit these villages, determine if anything could be done to help increase fruit and vegetable production and consumption, train extension educators, and advise about the curriculum used in the state agriculture institutes and the agricultural university at Yezin.

New York State Berry Growers Assocation Marvin Pritts myanmar farming research

 

The people of Chin State were exceptionally friendly and open to new ideas. We shared information and techniques for drip irrigation, sources of nitrogen fertilizer, soil management, postharvest handling, and garden design, and I hope these will gain traction and be implemented. Farmers in the United States do not have to fear competition from a country that is struggling to feed itself.

Such activities in developing countries help spread Cornell’s reputation abroad. It also could pay dividends for us in the future. For example, apple and pear germ plasm grow wild in the hills. Developing a good relationship with Myanmar could give us access to new germplasm in the future. Establishing such relationships increases the probability that bright students will come to the United States to study. Also, when we can work with growers in another country to reduce their pesticide use and minimize environmental impacts, it benefits all of us. Myanmar is strategically located between China and India, so having friendly relations with them is politically beneficial. Finally, it is simply the right thing to do.

New York State Berry Growers Association Marvin Pritts farming research myanmar chin state

 

So while spending time in developing countries may not appear to benefit New York growers, we are laying the groundwork for future dividends to be paid.

SWD ALERT!

spotted wing drosophila new york state berry growers association

SWD ALERT!

 

Cornell has reported sustained SWD catches in several counties. Numbers are not high yet, but have been increasing. Be vigilant in your trap and fruit monitoring, weeding, and irrigation/drainage, and employ a spraying routine that works with your picking schedule. Follow this basic guide:

  • Maintain an open canopy to increase sunlight and decrease humidity
  • Eliminate weeds within rows to increase sunlight penetration and improve spray penetration into and deposition on the canopy
  • Repair leaking drip lines and avoid overhead irrigation when possible. Allow the ground and mulch surface to dry before irrigating, and eliminate areas that encourage puddles.  
  • If you’ve set your own traps, check them regularly—daily, if possible. Females usually arrive first, but males are quick to follow.   
  • Check your fruit regularly. Pick groupings of 15-25 ripe fruit from different locations in your field, especially along the edges. Lightly squeeze each fruit. In a resealable bag, mix 1 cup salt and 1 gallon water. Add the fruit and mix well. After 30 minutes, check for small white larvae floating at the top. Repeat for each fruit grouping.
  • Apply pesticides every 5 to 7 days; repeat if it rains.
  • Rotate pesticides to prevent resistance.         

Visit Cornell's blog for detailed information on monitoring and growing best practices during SWD season. Download the university’s list of approved SWD insecticides here. 

The Berry Patch Pioneers Innovative Use of Exclusion Netting to Combat SWD

Berry Patch stephentown exclusion netting blueberries new york state berries

The Berry Patch Pioneers Innovative Use of Exclusion Netting

to Combat SWD

The Berry Patch, in tiny, rural Stephentown, has pioneered an innovative solution to spotted wing drosophila (SWD) infestation. Since it arrived in the United States in 2008, SWD has made it virtually impossible to grow commercially acceptable, pesticide-free raspberries and blueberries, but the Berry Patch’s experiments with exclusion netting seek to end crop losses.

Spotted wing drosophila is native to Southeast Asia. It first appeared in California in 2008, and spread to Florida the following year. By 2010, SWD had migrated to the Carolinas, Louisiana, Utah, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Northeastern fruit growers first went to battle with the insect in 2012, when an average of 80% of raspberry and 30% of blueberry crops—and approximately $4.3 million in revenue in NY state alone—were lost due to infestation of the fruit during its early ripening stages. Dale-Ila Riggs, co-owner of the Berry Patch and NYSBGA board chair, says, “This pest is a game-changer for berry growers nationwide. There are no natural enemies for it in the U.S.”

In 2012, Riggs lost about 40% of her lucrative blueberry crop to SWD. After observing some early research on the use of exclusion netting at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, she obtained a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Farmer grant to test the use of the netting on her half-acre blueberry planting. Riggs adapted her existing bird-netting support system into a support system for the exclusion netting, with extra protections and anchoring to withstand thunderstorms, hail, and up to 60 mph winds. She then compared the fruits from the covered plot to the fruits grown in a control plot protected only with bird netting.

Berry Patch co-owner Dale-Ila Riggs adapted her existing bird netting structure to exclusion netting, with extra security features to help it withstand the volatile Northeastern climate.

Berry Patch co-owner Dale-Ila Riggs adapted her existing bird netting structure to exclusion netting, with extra security features to help it withstand the volatile Northeastern climate.

The results were startling. Riggs documented an infestation rate of 0.7% and 0.3% in 2014 and 2015, and last year had a 0% infestation rate—a rate virtually unheard-of in agricultural systems.  Other farms around the country are taking notice, and have started to duplicate the Berry Patch’s successful growing system.

Riggs will set up her blueberry exclusion netting again in early July, prior to SWD’s summer activity. She also plans to experiment with the same exclusion netting for her high-tunnel raspberry planting for the first time this year. “With SWD, no one has been able to grow pesticide-free berries that are free from infestation,” Riggs notes. “The netting makes it possible. This is a highly effective method that brings new hope for growers.”

 

Doing “Nearly Everything Wrong”: A West Coast Farm with Northeastern Techniques

New York Times strawberry article New York State Berry Growers

Doing "Nearly Everything Wrong":

A West Coast Farm with Northeastern Techniques

We’re always happy to see berries in the news, and we especially like to see stories that praise the growing and harvesting methods New York State growers have been using for decades. That’s why this April 17, 2017, story in the New York Times caught our eye.

The article, about Rick and Molly Gean, owners of the strawberry farm Harry’s Berries, near Los Angeles, touts growers who “do nearly everything wrong, at least according to the gospel of modern commercial berry farming.” The Geans started out with commercial strains of berries but now organically grow Gaviota and Seascape strawberries. They sell 500,000 pounds of berries per year, with 70 percent of their business at farmers’ markets; pints are priced at $8. The article states that Harry’s Berries are the preferred fruits of many West Coast chefs, and even a handful in the Northeast.

What’s most interesting about this article is the spotlight it shines on the Geans’ harvesting, which happens once every five days, to ensure peak ripeness. “Ripeness is all,” proclaims the piece. “When the berries run out, they run out, because the Geans would rather send a customer home empty-handed than with a berry that doesn’t meet their standards.”

While the article doesn’t acknowledge that New York’s independent berry growers have been harvesting only at peak ripeness for generations, this is a great talking point with customers. And while we may not have the advantage of year-round growing in a mild climate, our short season gives us the opportunity to highlight the berries as “limited edition,” available only for a few weeks a year. Keep a copy of the Times article in your farm store or at your market booth, and see if it sparks some important conversation.

Member Spotlight: Tomion's Farm

tomion's farm new york state berrry growers association

Member Spotlight:

Tomion's Farm market

Farming has been part of the Tomion’s Farm family for so long that co-owner Alan Tomion is stumped when asked when they first established the business. He laughs and explains, “My great-grandfather started growing strawberries, and my father added vegetables. Then I expanded it with raspberries, hay, rhubarb. So it’s definitely been over 50 years. The farm has always been in our family.”

Located in the Finger Lakes in Penn Yan, the 160-acre Tomion’s Farm and store is open year-round, and sells strawberries, red raspberries, and blackberries, as well as a variety of fruits, vegetables, and live plants. The operation is primarily retail, with wholesale strawberry sales in the summer. The store also offers fresh baked goods and a selection of gifts.

Alan’s wife and co-owner, Crystal Tomion, runs the farm market, and oversees a handful of year-round part-time employees. Two of the couple’s sons have also joined the business.

While SWD was an issue for the Tomions’ fall raspberries a few years ago, the farm’s proximity to the Geneva Experiment Station has allowed them to benefit from the expertise of Professor Greg Loeb, who has conducted research on the farm, and their strawberry crops have been unaffected. Instead, the biggest challenge has been finding summer laborers. Alan says, “There needs to be some kind of program for workers who aren’t citizens to be able to make a living and not be hassled,” and notes that tightening restrictions against noncitizen workers have reduced their seasonal prospects from 100 to about a dozen.

Another challenge originates closer to home. The local Mennonite community, with their larger families and tradition of training their children as the next generation of laborers, are able to sell produce at a much lower price than farms with higher labor costs. “They’re stiff competition,” Alan admits.

Also stiff competition: grocery stores that sell peeled and washed produce and prepackaged dinners, and that target their marketing toward busy families and career people. “Older customers know that local berries have a lot more taste and nutrition,” Alan says. “But we’re slowly losing our older customers. Eating habits among younger people have changed quite a bit. They go out to eat more and buy more premade meals. And they don’t buy extra to freeze, like our older customers do.”

Still, Tomion’s Farm, which benefits from its high-visibility location on the busiest highway in the county, has succeeded for more than half a century by sticking to its mission of providing high-quality local foods. Alan and Crystal used to do more marketing and advertising, but ultimately decided that the cost outweighed the extra revenue that was needed to cover it. They now rely on their website and Facebook page, a few ads in local newspapers and magazines, and the word of mouth of customers, to spread the berry gospel.

Although Alan loves seeing first-time customers turn into repeat customers, for him, it all comes back to getting hands-on in the earth. “Farming is in my blood,” he says. “I just enjoy watching my crops grow.”

The Health Benefits of Berries

New York State Berry Growers association health benefits of berries

The Health Benefits of Berries

Vitamin and Flavoid-packed Powerhouses

Beyond their ability to add flavor to and complement a variety of savory and sweet recipes, berries are vitamin- and flavonoid-packed powerhouses. Get to know more about each berry and how it can benefit your health.

Blueberry

  • Consistently ranked as one of the top antioxidant foods—twice the concentration of spinach, and three times the amount found in oranges and grapes!
  • High in vitamins C and K, and manganese
  • Good source of fiber
  • The newest research suggests that blueberries may reduce the risk of heart attack and be beneficial in halting age-related memory decline

Strawberry

  • Packed with vitamin C (one serving has 150% of the recommended daily value)
  • High in antioxidants
  • Good source of fiber, folate, potassium, and manganese

Blackberry

  • One of the earth’s strongest antioxidant foods, with high levels of polyphenolic compounds including ellagic acid, quercetin, and cyanidins
  • High level of fiber
  • High levels of vitamins C and K, manganese, and folic acid

Raspberry

  • Packed with fiber
  • High levels of vitamin C; vitamins B1, B2, and B3; magnesium, folic acid, and iron
  • High levels of antioxidants, including catechins, salicylic acid, and anthocyanins
  • Contain raspberry ketone, which some preliminary studies suggest may be helpful in weight control