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Auditor Trevor Swanson asks:
Why aren’t blackberries sold in retail stores? We love the berries that are available, but man, blackberries are delicious, and we’ve wandered away from the neighborhood with trees and we miss them!
Some people have been lucky enough to grow up with mulberry trees in their neighborhood. But if you’re unfamiliar with the delicate, tart, and sweet fruit of the mulberry, you’re not alone.
While mulberries are easy to grow, the fruits are difficult to harvest and have a refrigerator shelf life of two to four days. That’s why most grocery stores don’t sell it.
The mulberry resembles an elongated version of the more popular mulberry, almost coniferous in shape, and grows on several species of trees.
There is the red mulberry, Morus rubra, a species native to North America; white mulberry, Morus alba; black mulberry, Morus nigra; and the Himalayan mulberry, Morus macroura; as well as hybrids of some of these species.
Jan Doolin, a mulberry expert from Lakeland, Florida, said the fruit tastes like a cross between a blueberry and a blackberry, possibly with raspberry mixed in.
Or, maybe it’s that all of these fruits taste like blackberries, an often underappreciated fruit that goes unrecognized by its staple grocery store counterparts.
Doolin, who grew up in Lakeland, has fond memories of climbing her family’s tall mulberry tree as a child and tasting the fruit. She started picking mulberries six years ago and now has 70 of 50 varieties on her acre of land.
But it is not impossible
The fruits usually ripen between spring and summer, depending on the type of mulberry tree.
Frog Hollow Farm – a 280-acre farm based in Brentwood, Calif. – has found a way to harvest blackberries and sell them fresh to select grocery stores in the state.
“The mulberry trees love to grow, especially here in this hot summer climate,” owner Al Courchesne said. “They love it here. So all you have to do is give them enough water. And lots of space.
In fact, one of the biggest challenges for mulberry trees is spacing trees properly due to their size, Courchesne said. Even the trees of Frog Hollow crowd together for light. After cutting, they are approximately 18 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
“The harvest ends at the end of June. In mid-July or early August, we are pruning those trees,” Courchesne said.
The farm has been growing blackberries for six years and continues to refine its methods, he said.
“Nobody wrote a textbook about it, and neither did we,” Courchesne said.
During the first year the farm grew blackberries, he realized that the fruit would fall from the tree as soon as it was ripe.
“So there’s your answer: you don’t have to pick them, just drop them,” Courchesne said. “But if you want to let them down, you have to catch them.”
Courchesne said the farm has devised “a very elaborate system of nets” that are set up under the mulberry trees during picking season.
At the height of the season, a “mulberry team” of about eight to 10 people will pick the fruit daily. The berries are picked one by one from the nets and immediately placed in retail packaging, right there in the orchard.
Courchesne said Frog Hollow Farm sells nearly half of its harvest to Whole Foods in Northern California.
“They send out a cold refrigerator truck to pick them up two or three times a week,” Courchesne said.
Frog Hollow Farm brings leftover blackberries to a farmers market or sends them to customers as part of its community-supported agricultural network. The fresh blackberries they sell are around $7 for 5 ounces.
Although blackberries are not widely sold in grocery stores in the United States, they are more easily purchased in other countries.
“When I was in Thailand, fresh blackberries were very common in local, community markets, but unfortunately the United States is not organized that way,” Mark Travis said via email. He’s a Gainesville, Florida-based mulberry expert and the creator of the Growing Mulberry website.
Travis said that in his experiences the berries arriving in Thai markets were “very fresh”.
“They have larger markets that sell a range of packaged goods, but the smaller markets and produce stalls are extremely plentiful,” he said.
Why can’t we have mulberry products?
So now we know why fresh blackberries are largely absent from our markets. However, Travis raises an interesting point: why don’t we have more frozen blackberries? Or even dried blackberries or blackberry drinks?
Frog Hollow Farm, at least, sells frozen blackberries on its website. (Three 10-ounce bags are about $72, or $2.4 an ounce.)
Even if you end up drying or freezing blackberries, harvesting the fruit will still be difficult because they’re so fragile, said Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm.
Miguel Gómez, professor of food marketing at Cornell University, also pointed out that few consumers know about blackberries.
Fruits like blueberries or strawberries, which are easier and cheaper to produce in larger quantities, are readily available, he said.
It’s kind of like a chicken and egg scenario, Gómez said. The demand for blackberries is not high enough for farmers to justify producing large enough quantities of the fruit to sell in stores, but perhaps the demand is not high enough because they are not produced and sold in large enough quantities to become well known to the general public.
The popularity of a fruit or vegetable isn’t always organic – take pomegranates and kale. Gómez said smart marketers saw their potential and invested a lot of time and money into educating consumers about their benefits and different ways to consume them.
Gómez said it would take an “entrepreneurial spirit” to grow the market for blackberries, but he thinks consumers would like them if they were more readily available – whether fresh, dried, processed or frozen.
Doolin of Lakeland, Florida thinks people are starting to appreciate mulberry.
“He had a bad reputation. For years it was like, ‘Oh, don’t plant those weeds,'” Doolin said. “I think we know how delicious this fruit really is and how easy it is to grow.”
Just be sure to eat them fresh.
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