Valley Bounty: Raspberries

By the 4th of July every year, phone calls are already rolling into Joe and Donna Pease. The question on everyone’s mind: when will raspberry picking open at Blue Heaven Blueberry and Raspberry Farm? Joe Pease is used to the question. He has been growing raspberries since his father planted the bushes on their family farm in Chester during the 1980s.

This year, Pease has been keeping a close eye on a variety of fruit fly called the spotted wing drosophila, or SWD. SWD was first found in the US on the west coast in 2008. By 2011, it had made its way to New England and today it is established in fruit growing regions throughout the nation. SWD attacks all soft skin fruit, Pease explained, “it starts with strawberries then cherries, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, peaches, everything.” Most varieties of fruit fly found in Massachusetts will consume farmers’ fruit once it’s overripe and begun to rot. SWD, on the other hand, will target ripening fruit, giving it the potential to wipe out a harvest before the farmer has had the opportunity to pick.

Farming has never been a static profession—farmers have always had to adapt to survive. Still, the arrival of spotted wing drosophila in the Northeast points to the intensifying pest pressure that farmers can expect as climate change brings increased precipitation and milder winters that more pests can survive. Farmers and agricultural experts are working hard to develop techniques so they can stay a step ahead of SWD and other pests, and still some years are more successful than others.

“SWD likes hot, moist, humid areas to live in,” Pease told me. “The weather conditions favored them all spring and summer so far.” That may be why, Pease explained, UMass extension identified SWD targeting strawberries in the Pioneer Valley in mid-June this year, the earliest in the season they’ve ever found the pest active in the region. To keep SWD away from his raspberries, Pease does his best to make sure that his fields are an unwelcome habitat to the flies. He keeps his bushes carefully pruned and cuts back the grass and weeds to minimize the cool, shady environments that SWD loves. When needed, he bolsters his protections with the application of insecticides. I asked Pease if he was concerned about the early arrival of the pest. “You just try to deal with it,” he said, “do the best you can and hope it doesn’t rain much.”

Staving off pests is just one of the multitude of tasks that raspberry farmers across the Valley are rushing to finish as pick-your-own season kicks off. Fortunately for the rest of us, all we have to do to enjoy some farm fresh raspberries is find a farm, grab a pint, and get to picking!

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)