Heat detracting from Virginia blackberry harvest

It’s prime blackberry season in Virginia, and growers are weathering recent hot temperatures with a cautious eye on this season’s yield.

“We had a decent early season with a pretty good crop of berries,” noted Joey Cole, co-owner of Cole Berry Farm in Halifax County. “Right now, we are having a rough time with heat damage to the fruit.”

He and his brother, Jeff, operate the farm that has been producing blackberries for more than 30 years. The Coles ship berries to wholesale distributors and large food service operations statewide.

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Joey Cole said Virginia’s climate and soil are well-suited to growing blackberries, and the demand for local berries is increasing. However, the summer heat is raising concerns about this year’s crop.

“The yield of shippable fruit is not there right now,” Cole said. “We are hoping the price will stay up for the rest of the summer and help pull us through the season.”

In 2017, U.S. blackberry production was valued at $31 million. In Virginia, 6,300 acres produced more than 40 million pounds of the succulent fruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Blackberries, increasingly popular, are definitely a local summer treat, whether straight off the vine or served with ice cream,” remarked Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Blackberries are well-suited to Virginia conditions. However, extended summer heat is challenging blackberry producers more than usual.”

Westmoreland Berry Farm in Westmoreland County produces eight different varieties of blackberries, which ripen at various times throughout the season. In addition to a pick-your-own operation, the farm sells berries to wholesalers and retail markets.

“We’ve had some extreme heat with no rain in the last couple of weeks,” explained Greg Nugent, the farm’s production manager. “The sun can burn the tops of the berries and cause sunscald, so we can’t pick fast enough. We pump all the water we can to our six fields.”

Even though some of the berries will suffer from the heat, Nugent said there will be plenty of quality berries for the farm’s blackberry festival on July 20.

“The blackberries are good quality this year in terms of size and flavor. The plants seem to be flowering all of the time, and the fruit is plump and sweet,” Nugent added.

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