Blackberries (Rubus sp.) can be a profitable cash crop for growers in Ohio. There is a strong consumer demand for fresh blackberries due to their good taste, versatility, and health benefits. Growers are encouraged to compare various production systems for winter protection because blackberry canes can be injured when mid-winter temperatures reach minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit or below for Eastern Thornless and 12 F or below for trailing blackberries. In addition, spring temperatures of 27 F or below can injure blackberry flowers and buds. Hence, blackberry production without winter protection will not likely lead to a harvest every year.
The common Ohio blackberry production systems are:
- rotatable cross-arm trellis (RCATM)
- hedge row in open field
- high tunnel
- primocane-bearing cultivars in open field
This fact sheet examines the pros and cons of each system.
Rotatable Cross-Arm (RCA) System
The rotatable cross-arm trellis (RCA) system is considered a high-input, high-reward system. This system was developed by Dr. Fumi Takeda of USDA-ARS in Kearneysville, West Virginia. The RCA trellis, in conjunction with a cane training system and winter protection with row covers, was shown to improve winter survival of floricanes for a successful harvest each year. The RCA system was further refined and commercialized by Richard Barnes of Trellis Growing Systems in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This system has turned into a very dependable blackberry production system for growers in Ohio and beyond.
After several polar vortexes in the winters of 2014 and 2017, virtually all floricanes on Ohio blackberry bushes without winter protection were damaged. They sustained a 95–100% crop loss. Blackberry plants under the RCA system suffered only a 5% loss. The RCA system has earned its place in Ohio’s blackberry production.
There are several advantages to the RCA system:
- provides protection from winter’s cold temperatures and drying winds
- improves harvesting efficiency by about 30%
- provides consistent production year after year
- produces greater selections of superior-tasting blackberry cultivars
There are some disadvantages to the RCA system:
- high costs of establishment
- steep learning curve
- high labor requirement
The cost of establishment is around $20,000 per acre while gross revenue is projected to be $45,000 once bushes reach full maturity. Perspective growers are encouraged to develop a detailed business plan and research their marketing options before committing to a large investment for the RCA system.
Here are the key points for using the RCA trellis in Ohio:
- Ouachita, Natchez, Osage, and Triple Crown blackberries have been successfully grown in Ohio for several years using the RCA system. Newer blackberry cultivars, such as Caddo and Ponca are also planted by several growers in Ohio due to their high yields and excellent taste.
- Typical plant spacing is 5–6 feet with 6 feet being more ideal. Row spacing in Ohio is typically 11 feet. Slightly wider row spacing could be considered if land cost is not a limiting factor.
- In Ohio, the RCA trellis is typically rotated down to the ground level toward the side with the shorter arm in mid-December (Figure 4). This is considered the winter/spring position. A dormant fungicide spray, such as lime sulfur or Sulforix®, is highly recommended in December before covering plants with row covers of 3 to 5 ounces per square yard in weight or thickness (Figure 5).
- To keep the bushes dormant during the winter months, the row covers will need to be vented when daytime temperatures are forecasted to be 59 degrees Fahrenheit or above for more than two days in a row.
- The timing for floating row cover removal can be tricky and is dependent on temperature and plant developmental stage. Growers need to monitor air temperatures both inside and outside the row covers. Row covers need to be taken off once the threat of cold temperatures has passed, but before bud break. Typically timing for this is mid-March. Sometimes, growers may need to remove the row cover and put them back on a few times due to Ohio’s fluctuating temperatures around late winter and early spring.
- After the removal of row covers, the RCA trellis should be rotated to the upright or vertical position for a day or two to allow for a dormant fungicide spray.
- The RCA trellis is rotated to a horizontal or flowering position for 4–6 weeks, which corresponds to bud break and flowering (Figure 6).
- The RCA trellis is then rotated to the fruiting or harvest season around late May (Figure 3). The long arm is rotated 30 degrees beyond vertical position.
- The fruiting side of the RCA trellis should always face east or north to minimize sun scolding of berries.
- Three primocanes are usually trained for horizontal growth per RCA trellis by gently guiding them to the lower training wire, typically from May to June. The recommended timing of the day for training is early to mid-afternoon when the new primocanes are less susceptible to breakage. Once the primocanes reach the adjacent plant, they are tipped. Depending on the plant spacing, these primocanes can be 5 to 6 feet long. The primocanes that emerge later are removed to reduce competition.
- Lateral canes arising from the three trained primocanes are placed on the short cross arm wires on the shorter arm.
- Fruit harvest typically occurs in Ohio from late July through August.
- Floricanes that have fruited are then removed shortly after the fruit harvest is completed.
- Lateral canes are then placed on the long cross arm wires of the longer arm. When they reach the top of the wire on the longer arm, they are tipped.
- The trellis is then flipped down to the winter/spring position (Figure 4) and the cycle continues.
For more information on theories and applications of the RCA system, refer to the article "Method for Producing Long-cane Blackberry Plants" (Takeda and Soria 2011).
For details on cane training techniques, refer to a journal article “Rotating Cross-Arm Trellis Technology for Blackberry Production” (Takeda et al. 2013). Log on to trellisgrowingsystems.com/products/rotating-cross-arm-rca-trellis-system for diagrams and instructions.
Hedge Row in Open Field System
The hedge row in open field system for blackberry production has been a standard method of operation for many years in Ohio (Figures 7–8). This approach requires much lower initial investment than the RCA system. Growers have been able to get a decent harvest in some years, less so during others. This approach may still work for highly diversified farming operations. However, more frequent crop failure due to cold injuries to primocanes during the last 15 to 20 years has made this system much less appealing to growers.
Suggested blackberry cultivars are Chester Thornless and Triple Crown since they are more cold-hardy than Ouachita and Natchez. Growers in southern Ohio had varying degrees of success with these blackberry cultivars. Growers in central and northern Ohio may not have as much luck with them.
Typical spacing for blackberry bushes in an open field system are 4–6 feet between plants and 10 feet between rows. A trellis and posts are still recommended since blackberry canes can grow to be quite long and may suffer breakage from intense winds. In addition, some cultivars will grow too low to the ground without support.
Pressure-treated wood posts are recommended for blackberry hedges. Line posts should be at least 7 feet long and at least 4 inches in diameter. Drive or set posts 2 feet into the ground, leaving 5 feet of the posts above ground. Line posts are set no more than 25 to 30 feet apart. The end posts are at least 8 feet in length with a 6 inches diameter on the top of the post. The posts are driven or set 3 feet deep into the ground. Generally, wood is used for end posts. Use anchors to further support end posts. The top wire on the trellis is load-bearing wire (12 ½-gauge, high tensile, electric fence wire). The lower wires are for positioning canes, and a 14-gauge, high tensile wire is typically strong enough. A weed mat is also recommended to prevent weed growth. Drip irrigation is needed for maximum fruit production and ease of watering.
New growers are encouraged to check with their state specialists, OSU Extension educators, suppliers and other growers for suggestions and recommendations. More detailed information is also available in the references and additional resources listed at the end of this publication.
High Tunnel System
High tunnels are a popular way to grow several fruit and vegetable crops. Blackberry bushes can do well in high tunnels (Figures 9–10). Some of the benefits are added winter protection for primocanes, elevated temperatures for longer fruit ripening season, and rain shield for disease reduction. However, growers will need to get higher yields and higher prices for the berries to justify the increased cost of high tunnel installation and maintenance.
Suggested cultivars for high tunnel protection are Ouachita, Natchez, and Triple Crown. Other newer cultivars such as Caddo and Ponca can also be considered for this system. Some of the primocane-bearing cultivars such as Prime-Ark® Freedom and Prime-Ark® 45 can benefit from the protection of high tunnels for full ripening of fruit in central and northern Ohio, where they would not ripen otherwise.
Suggested spacing is 3–6 feet between plants and 6–9 feet between rows. This is closer than the recommended field spacing due to the costs of high tunnels. With this closer spacing, vegetative growth will need to be actively managed. Primocanes have grown up to 20 feet inside a high tunnel.
A trial of high tunnel blackberry production with Ouachita and Natchez from 2013–2015 resulted in decent success at South Centers in Piketon, Ohio. Pollination was a challenge, as honeybees became disoriented inside the high tunnel. Bumblebee boxes were not placed inside the high tunnels. But native bees went inside the high tunnel and did an excellent job of pollinating the flowers. For commercial production, we believe that introduction of bumblebees into the high tunnels would be essential for ensuring a full crop.
Primocane-Bearing Cultivars in Open Field
Primocane-bearing blackberry cultivars have come a long way from the first introductions of Prime-Jim® and Prime-Jan®. Prime-Ark® 45 is the third release. Prime-Ark® Freedom is the fourth release of the primocane-bearing blackberries from Dr. John Clark of the University of Arkansas. Prime-Ark® Freedom is recommended for growers in southern Ohio. It is thornless and has a better chance to ripen the crop with the longer grower season there. Growers in central and northern Ohio could try growing them in a high tunnel. Growers will need to examine the economics of either production approach. There is also added pressure from the pest, spotted wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii). Fall ripening blackberries are an easy target for this highly damaging and difficult-to-control insect.
Pick-your-own is a common method of blackberry marketing and can work well in the open field system. Be aware that harvesting and marketing methods are dependent on the production systems. Growers who use the RCA system tend to hire pickers to harvest the fruits in a timely manner. Growers need to be informed about possible labor shortages before they install the RCA system.
Blackberry growers can sell their blackberries at various farmer’s markets, their own market, and to other marketers or retailers. Some sell their blackberries through a fruit broker, who then sells the blackberries all over the country. Selling fruits to a winery may be another option (Gao et al. 2022). Ultimately, each grower needs to find their niche.
Blackberries can be a profitable crop to grow in Ohio. There are pros and cons to all the above-mentioned approaches. Growers are encouraged to do their homework by talking to suppliers and fellow growers. They should also have their markets lined up and labor situation figured out before installing a blackberry planting.
Both, A.J., K. Demchak, E. Hanson, C. Heidenreich, G. Loeb, L. McDermott, M. Pritts, et al. 2019. “High Tunnel Raspberries and Blackberries Production Guide.” Cornell University. PDF. hort.cornell.edu/fruit/pdfs/high-tunnel-brambles.pdf.
Bushway, L., M. Pritts, and D. Handley. 2008. “Raspberry and Blackberry Production Guide for the Northeast, Midwest, and Eastern Canada” (NRAES-35). Natural Resource, Agriculture, and Engineering Service (NRAES), Cornell University.
Hall, H., and R. Funt. 2017. Blackberries and Their Hybrids. Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI or CAB International). Wallingford, Oxfordshire, UK, and Boston, Massachusetts.
Gao, G.Y., E. Brown, M.R. Slaughter, and J. Fox. 2022. “Direct Marketing of Fruit Crops to Ohio Wineries” (HYG-1433). Ohioline, The Ohio State University.
Takeda, Fumiomi, and J. Soria. 2011. “Method for Producing Long-cane Blackberry Plants.” HortTechnology: Volume 21, Issue 5: 563–568.
Takeda, Fumiomi, David Michael Glenn, and Thomas Tworkoski. 2013. Rotating Cross-Arm Trellis Technology for Blackberry Production. Journal of Berry Research: Volume 3, Issue 1: 25–40.
Our sincere appreciation goes to the Ohio Department of Agriculture and USDA Agricultural Marketing Service for their support of our bramble projects at The Ohio State University South Centers through several specialty crop block grants. We also thank Bradford Sherman for editing this publication.