Elderberry Trials for Northern Ohio Growers; Demonstrations and Evaluations to Encourage Diversification

Final Report for FNC09-772

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $1,953.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Timothy J Malinich
The Ohio State University Extension
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Project Information


Date of Report: 14 February, 2013

Hearthstone Berry Farm is a forty-six acre farm in Northern Ashland County, Ohio, hardiness zone 6 (recently changed from zone 5). It is a lightly rolling property consisting primarily of Mahoning silt loam soils with twelve acres of lowland woods on the northern property line. The remaining thirty-four acres tillable land are tiled and have been in Timothy / clover / orchard grass, but put into soybeans in 2012.

In 2008, the Hearthstone Berry Farm was started with the front acreage planted to blueberries, blackberries and peaches. One-half acre was initially set aside for vegetable production for roadside and farm market sales. The property also has a one-half acre pond to supply water for trickle irrigation of crops. Fruit sales are targeted to niche markets consisting of, but not limited to, pick-your-own, weekly farm markets and roadside sales, and the wine trade.

The applicant is an Extension Educator / Agent in Lorain county Ohio. The berry farm is a source of additional income but also serves the extension educator as a means of conducting research on projects with a local target and regional impact. One goal of the berry farm is to provide information and proof-of-concept demonstrations to assist other growers in choosing more diverse crops for local markets.

Educational outreach from the farm includes an established website <hearthstonefarm.net> which is set up to provide information to the consumer and commercial grower about the crops grown on the farm. The intention for homeowners is for them to learn the needed skills for growing their own produce. For commercial growers, the intention is to showcase a diverse mix of crops and demonstrate production techniques to entice them to diversify their own mix for sales to local markets. The demonstrations are only a small portion of what will be a larger fruit growing operation.

Currently the blueberry and blackberry plantings are a collection of cultivars available for zone 5 and 6. The blackberry collection has all of the common commercial varieties plus less common varieties. The primocane bearing varieties are also planted. A one-half acre block is being planted into Ribes trials. All collections will be maintained for production but will be used to demonstrate and evaluate cultivars for this area. Poor producing cultivars will be reduced in number but maintained as long as practicable. New cultivars will be added as available. Other demonstration plantings being considered are American persimmon, quince and Aronia.

Sustainable practices used: As a fruit farm, soil is covered at all times. Grass aisles are used as walkways between all rows. Weed free areas within rows are maintained with pre-emergent herbicides and mulch. IPM is practiced through the development of a management program, scouting, and applying low impact pesticides as needed.

-Make a trial planting of elderberries, containing the more commonly available varieties plus less commonly planted selections.

-Conduct two field days to invite local growers to view the trial plants, and comment on the growth habit, taste and condition of the plants.

-Collect data on habit and harvest from bearing varieties. Publish results in presentations and on website and provide to any interested parties.

Project development began by identifying the data and outreach that I wanted from the project. As a trial planting, this was an education project so the results would be both impacts of outreach efforts and evaluation of the plants themselves. The physical parameters of the project were designed to meet those end goals.

Elderberry growing was researched using libraries, Extension office information (factsheets, bulletins, interviews with specialists and agents), my personal library and internet searches. Resources were copied or kept electronically to provide a file to use when writing articles presentations or creating handouts. Research based information sources were preferred—universities, ASHS HortTech or HortScience, older bulletins or Agricultural Center reports, etc. Information from personal or business blogs, marketing websites, etc, was not used unless it was backed up by a research based source. Trial plantings in Ohio and other states were reviewed to see how current the information was and how they were set up.

Sources of plant material were identified. A list of suppliers was obtained from The Ohio State University Center at Piketon. Also, varieties not commercially available were obtained from the USDA germplasm bank in Corvallis, OR. A local nursery offered to do all of the propagating for the project.

The trial block was set up next to the farm road for easy access. Wider row spacing was used to accommodate foot traffic for the field days—this amounted to using a 15 foot row space rather than 12 foot and an in-row spacing of 8 feet rather than 5 feet. The spacing was beneficial in taking measurements and pointing out cultivar characteristics.

Soil testing was done prior to planting and fertilizer applied to correct deficiencies. Irrigation was installed as planned. Trickle tape was used to reduce cost and to provide more uniform delivery of water than that provided by individual emitters. The infiltration rate of the soil was calculated and the irrigation duration and timing adjusted to supplement about 1 inch of water per week.

A bird netting system (total enclosure) was installed to exclude birds. The system was modified to keep the side curtains up for most of the season to exclude deer.

The two field days were scheduled near the beginning of harvest so participants could see most of the varieties in some stage of fruiting. Participants were encouraged to taste and provide evaluation of cultivars.

Additional cultivars were added in year two of the trial and cultivars have even recently been added as there is an ongoing interest from local growers, buyers and Extension staff in the elderberry growing program.

Mike Gastier, Extension Educator, Huron county
Provided program advertising as well as help with the initial evaluation.

Bob Matus, owner, Matus Winery
Provided help with evaluations as well as marketing information for the crop and educational events. Bob also introduced the trials to other growers as well as a local wine group, the Dead Yeast Society. This group has several small growers who participated in the field days.

Media and Presentations
I write for several newspapers, magazines and am a regular speaker at educational events. This network of contacts provided me with a means of advertising both the trials and field days. Also, trial and results were used in presentations at Master Gardener and Extension events. Getting the information out to fruit growers through extension office meetings generated interest in the elderberry trials.

As a demonstration project, the primary measurement was in the number of participants in the project (number of people who asked for information about the trials and elderberry crop) and to show case the crop to potential growers.

-Over 60 people attended field days and actively participated in rating elderberry cultivars in their second year of growth. All participants indicated an interest in growing the crop and several made requests for followup classes, such as pruning and harvesting.
-Two newspaper articles were generated which directly related to elderberry production in northern Ohio.
-Presentations on small fruit production, including data from the elderberry trials were given to more than 400 people, including commercial fruit growers.
-Subsequent magazine and newspaper articles included elderberry growing in the area of edible landscaping.
-One interview for a book was given for small fruit and elderberry growing.
-Gave individual tours of the trial for 5 potential new commercial growers wanting to diversify into elderberries or expand existing plantings.
-Responded to numerous calls and emails about elderberry production in northern Ohio.

Data on individual cultivars was taken during both harvest years, but the results vary widely as the first year was during our record rainfall and the second year during our record drought. We will continue to take data on three plants per variety in the coming years to continue the projects and hopefully have better comparative numbers.

I had hoped for more interest in the data from the trial. However, most participants were more interested in the procedure of growing elderberries as a niche crop rather than the variation in varieties. In the future I will concentrate more on presenting results as a recommendation rather than with data on individual varieties.

I have to say the first thing I learned is that deer prefer elderberries over all other crops on the farm. The first year, they devastated the crop and were not repelled by taste or scent repellents. A netting system was most successful at excluding the deer. I anticipated some problems, but not to the extent that we experienced.

The farm, and my area of expertise in Extension, was affected because the farm and my experience have identified me as a local unusual fruit expert. I now get regular information requests from around the state and speaking requests specifically to small fruit and elderberries. Several growers I work with have stated an interest in diversifying into niche crops. We get a few requests a year to view the berry trials and we have never turned anyone down.

With a berry project, full production is not really reached until the third or fourth year. The information from the trials and the impact of field days would be best during that time, but the grant cycle is too short. A longer term grant for fruit crops or other multi-year maturity projects would be a great addition to the program. However, an advantage of a perennial project is that it will keep producing results for many years—regular field days or other educational events (pruning) could happen in the same demonstration project.

If asked for a recommendation, I would say that the there is an interest in diversifying production with niche crops in the north central Ohio area. Most people viewed the crop positively and some even made plans for planting elderberries in the future. For instance, a neighbor asked why I would go to the trouble of planting and netting a crop that grows in fence rows and woodlots. When I told him that with this system you could pick tens of pounds in a few minutes and have each cluster full of ripe berries, he understood what I was trying to demonstrate and now watches the crop with a new interest.

Additionally, over the past two years I have consulted with several people that have stated they are planning on planting an elderberry crop. I have not followed up with all of them, but one grower did plant a crop the year following our field days. A second person still maintains they are planning but have yet to prepare the area.

-Field days were advertised by providing exclusive articles with photos to local papers
-Over 400 people attended Powerpoint presentations that were given to fruit growers, master gardeners, and other farmers.
-Over 60 people participated in field days or tours of the elderberry trial planting.
-Presented initial results at the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference in Columbia, MO in 2011
-One commercial grower requested that I include his elderberry selection in the trial to test it against currently available cultivars.

Continued work:
-Additional varieties have been planted
-Will continue to take data and hopefully get better comparative numbers if we can get away without a flood (2011) or drought (2012).
-Will maintain website and provide results as available but in a more distilled form, less detail.
-Pruning workshops have been requested, perhaps in 2014. I would like to compare pruning methods in one variety.
-I would also like to study the productivity of canes by year in our area.

Photos, flyers had been sent earlier.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.