New Growth

The Recorder, September 19, 2020. By ZACK DeLUCA, Staff Writer

Driving by the Nourse Farms fields in Whately, one may catch a glimpse of a red building popping up among the berries. But what can’t be seen is the cutting edge agricultural technology housed inside the building — tech that is helping Nourse Farms change the way berry farmers grow plants all across the United States.

After nearly three years of preparation, the River Road berry farm is getting ready to complete its first season using a new high-tech system for long-cane blackberry production. Owner Tim Nourse said this is all part of a partnership with a client that is for the first time bringing innovative European cultivation methods here to North America.

“This is the heart of the long cane business,” Nourse said on a recent afternoon as he pulled up to the red building, which is located in the center of his Whately fields. Inside was the new mechanized injection system for irrigation and nutrient management. Nourse, who studied agronomy and agricultural economics at the University of Connecticut, enjoys the scientific aspects of his job. Berry production on the farm is a science. In 1980, for example, he created a state of the art tissue culture laboratory and micropropagation facility at the farm, allowing “all foundation material to be produced and virus tested onsite,” according to the farm’s website.

Outside the building, a field of long-cane blackberries could be seen — there are roughly 200,000 longcane blackberry plants growing in Whately and Northfield, divided into four zones — sprouting from pots instead of the ground. The fields were connected to the barn’s injection system by underground hoses. An aboveground stretch of hose had been strung along the base of the plants with a dropper stretching into each pot. According to Nourse, the machinery inside the barn, which features a fertilizer tank, allows farmers to carefully adjust the fertilizer-to-water ratio in parts per million for each zone.

“You can set the pH levels to your exact desire,” Nourse said, noting that the system is automated by a computer and can be set to water the plants at a certain time each day. The amount of fertilizer can be adjusted at each watering. Nourse says they draw water from the Connecticut River; the system removes silt from the water before it is used on the crops.

To that end, Nourse said the customer they are working with on the project is developing a European model for plant production (different than the way berries are grown at Nourse Farms) that incorporates greenhouses. According to Nourse, around 90 percent of all berries produced in Europe are grown inside greenhouses. Compared to outdoor growth, which is common in the United States, greenhouses can potentially produce healthier fruit than fields because the plants are protected from the cold and have an extended season, as well as being protected from the many pests and diseases found outdoors. Within the project’s broader scope, Nourse says his farm’s job is to provide the customer with “the right product” — a batch of healthy plants — with which to start their endeavor.

“We’re propagators, that’s what we do,” he said.

The long-cane berries, which were planted in June, should reach the height of the posts they are grown on by mid-October. By November, the weather will be cold enough for the plants to have entered dormancy, a period in an organism’s life cycle when growth, development and physical activity stop temporarily. Some plants require proper dormancy in order to blossom or set fruit. Other plants, like fruit trees and certain flowers, require a minimum number of chill hours to thrive.

“But we’re not going to wait for God to make it cold,” Nourse said.

The farm will start packing the long-cane plants that are growing in Northfield next week. Already, Nourse says they have blown the leaves off the plants and are ready to pack them into crates; each crate holds hundreds of plants. Once safely packaged, they will be refrigerated to achieve dormancy by undergoing temperature changes, dropping a few degrees at a time, until they’re ready for shipment.

“We’ll achieve 200 hours of chill in the field and then they’ll be packed into crates to finish their chill and storage life until they’re ready to be shipped to (the) customer,” Nourse said.

Notably, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires the variety of the longcane plant grown at Nourse Farms, which came from Europe, tp be acquired through an import permit.

While the project has just gotten fully underway with long-cane blackberries, Nourse said they plan to expand the endeavor next year with strawberry tray plants — a berry crop Nourse Farms is known for.

‘There aren’t many strawberry fields in North America that look like this,’ Nourse said, noting this year’s particularly bountiful crop of berries.

About the farm

In 2018, Nourse Farms purchased the greenhouses at Five Acre Farm in Northfield, doubling its greenhouse space for growing various berry plants. In total, Nourse Farms encompasses over 400 acres with land in Whately, Hatfield and Montague. Roughly 90 percent of the farm’s business is from plant sales, Nourse said. On average, the farm ships at least 20 million plants a year to customers around the world. The farm grows strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, red currants, elderberries, red raspberries, yellow raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. The farm also grows rhubarb, asparagus, horseradish and more for cultivating.

Nourse Farms grows and propagates its plants through tissue culture from an on-site laboratory, from cuttings or runners. Tissue culture involves putting a meristem — a piece of plant tissue roughly the size of a grain of salt — into a type of growing material to grow into a plantlet. Plants like strawberries have runners, the stem portion of the plant that grows horizontally, which can be used to propagate new plants. Propagation entails taking a piece of the plant and embedding it into a growing medium, like soil.

The farm was founded by Roger Lewis in 1932 in Andover. In 1968, Lewis partnered with the Nourse family and the farm moved to Franklin County because of the region’s nutrient-rich soil. When Lewis retired in 1974, he sold his share of the business to the Nourse family. Today, the farm covers a patchwork of more than 400 acres across five towns. Clients hail from Canada, Ecuador, Mexico and across the United States as far away as California.

Nourse Farms employs over 100 people, and this new berry operation has roughly 30 employees assigned to it.

For more information

Zack DeLuca can be reached at z d e l u c a @recorder.c o m or 413-930-4579.