PIKETON, Ohio (AP) — A research project has begun in Ohio to find ways of increasing the state's production of blackberries and raspberries as consumer demand for the fruits continues to grow.
Researchers with Ohio State University Extension are studying alternative planting methods to help Ohio growers step up production of the two increasingly popular fruits that many health experts say provide health benefits.
Demand for the berries has grown in recent years thanks to consumers wanting those benefits, said Gary Gao, an OSU Extension specialist and associate professor of small fruit crops at the OSU South Centers at Piketon in southern Ohio.
The berries contain dietary fiber and high levels of antioxidants — substances that health experts believe protect cells in the body from damage that they say can lead to diseases such as cancer.
Gao says consumption of fresh raspberries has been climbing in the U.S. and blackberry crops are expanding worldwide.
Production and consumption of blackberries, in particular, have been increasing in recent years, according to Debby Wechsler, executive secretary of the North American Raspberry & Blackberry Association.
"One of the reasons is that blackberries are available year round and consumers are seeing them in stores more often now," Wechsler said.
Rhoads Farm Inc., in Circleville, has grown and marketed blackberries since the 1990s, and company president Brett Rhoads says he has seen demand for the fruit grow over the last four to five years.
His farm produces about 180,000 pounds of blackberries a year, but no longer produces raspberries.
"Raspberries are tougher to grow in this climate, because they are soft and perishable and humidity can hurt them," he said.
Growing blackberries in Ohio also can present some challenges since that fruit does not have a large degree of winter hardiness, and a very cold winter can cause severe damage, according to Gao.
The two-year, $55,000 research project that began in October is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant through the Ohio Department of Agriculture. It's intended to address the shortage in quantity and seasonal availability of Ohio-grown blackberries and raspberries.
The grant will allow researchers to test more hardy varieties, work on increasing the bramble acreage in Ohio by 150 acres over the next two to five years and improve the yields of bramble plants by 15 percent, Gao said. A bramble is collection of a group of plants — such as blackberries and raspberries — that have thorns.
Researchers also are working on expanding the seasonal availability of bramble fruits by at least two weeks and on educating growers through training workshops.
Gao says farmers who typically have raised other crops such as corn and soybeans could benefit from adding berries.
"It's a good way to add another source of income," Gao said.