With an appealing new variety and a market that has barely been tapped, southern raspberry growers are in position to take the next step in bringing their commodity before the public eye.
The variety is Nantahala, a late-ripening raspberry with a highly attractive red color and superior flavor that was recently released by North Carolina State University.
Nantahala can be harvested later in the season than other industry standard primocane-fruiting varieties, says Gina Fernandez, North Carolina Extension small fruit specialist and bramble breeder.
That will be a definite advantage. “The late harvest of Nantahala will enable growers in that region to harvest high-quality fruit later into the fall than in the past,” she says.
This new variety was originated by Jim Ballington, the North Carolina State University plant breeder, and evaluated by Ballington and Fernandez prior to its release.
Nantahala will play its biggest role on farms in the higher elevation areas of North Carolina and adjacent states.
It is “primocane” in fruiting habit, which means it will produce a crop in the fall.
The berries are large, she says. In University testing, Nantahala's flavor, texture and seediness were rated as good as or better than three other raspberry varieties. The color and shape of Nantahala were rated superior.
But it is not well adapted to heat.
Nantahala production won’t be limited to North Carolina. “It will definitely have a place in Virginia raspberry production, although how much we don’t know yet,” says Allen Straw, Virginia Extension horticulturist. “It is a higher quality berry than what we have had, and it has very good appearance. The yield potential is good, and this variety will probably perform as good or better than anything we have now.”
Straw is stationed at Glade Springs, Va., in the southwest part of the state, where there are many high elevation farms that might benefit from Nantahala’s characteristics.
Nantahala means “land of the midday sun” in Cherokee.
The best growing conditions for raspberries in the southern U.S. exist in the high elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, say Fernandez and Gerard Krewer, Georgia Extension horticulturist. That’s because the summer temperatures are not too hot, and the winter temperatures do not fluctuate as much as in the lower elevations.
Raspberry plants generally perform best where the growing season is long and summer temperatures are mild, the specialists say. They also grow best where winters are uniformly cool and long enough to satisfy their chilling requirement.
“These conditions are not typical of most areas in the southern U.S.” say Fernandez and Krewer. “With careful selection of cultivars, however, coupled with good cultural practices, they can be grown successfully despite the odds.”
Improved market opportunities could be developing. Blackberries — which are, like raspberries, a “bramble” crop — have enjoyed unprecedented consumption growth since 2007, and raspberries may be set to enjoy some of that market expansion soon. A major buyer of berries from Florida has expressed an interest in contracting for raspberries at some time in the future.
SunnyRidge Farm Inc. of Winter Haven, Fla., supplies grocery stores with blackberries from Mexico and Georgia, Fernandez said. Georgia production ends in early July. In the cooler climate of western North Carolina, production typically extends to mid-August, so the season could be extended.
“What we have is a market coming to us,” said Diane Ducharme, North Carolina Extension area specialized agent for commercial small fruit and vegetables.
A grower association called the North Carolina Commercial Blackberry and Raspberry Grower’s Association was formed in 2007.
Tar Heel raspberry growers are not meeting the current in-state demand for their product, meaning raspberries have to be brought in from other states. Fernandez says North Carolina raspberry production can expand considerably before reaching the limits of the existing market.
The rise in fuel prices and the relative perishability of bramble crops has shifted production from the West Coast to the Eastern Seaboard, where large markets exist for these crops, says Fernandez.
Fresh raspberry consumption is up nearly 300 percent in the United States, according to a report from the Dutch banking group Rabobank. The demand for raspberries is expected to continue growing because they are the type of fruit today’s consumer is looking for: Convenient, healthy and available year round.
Domestic production meets only 80 percent of the demand, and there have been significant increases in imports of fresh raspberries over the past few years, says Rabobank.
The main sources of fresh raspberry imports are Canada in the months of June and August and Chile and Mexico from November to May. Fresh raspberries make up about two thirds of U.S. raspberry imports, the bank says.