With his cash crop of red and black raspberries 20 percent up but still ripening a week before picking, a worry visits Mike Pullins like a persistent fly.
“The thing that always scares me, the worst thing that could happen now, is a hail storm,” said Pullins at Champaign Berry Farm on the west side of the Champaign County village of Mutual.
He’s not alone.
“There is a new bug out there,” said Berryland’s Barbara Kranz, whose grandsons are earning their college money in the field she and husband Ed have provided for them at 9530 Plattsburg Road. “If it doesn’t find us, we have an outstanding crop.”
But it’s not just because brief, intense misery loves company that they want more people in the business.
“We need more growers to fill the demand,” said Pullins, whose family operation started 25 years ago in Cable as his older son’s Future Farmers of America project. “We would welcome the additional growers.”
Ed Kranz says Pullins is true to his welcoming word.
“Mike has been like a mentor to me in this whole thing,” said the retired Northeastern High School educator, whose operation is in its 11th year.
Both local operations get 80 percent of their business from pickers and are posting picking conditions on their Facebook (Berryland) or Web pages (www.champaignberryfarm.com). They also send out hundreds of cards, mailers and emails to loyal customers who troop back year after year.
Champaign Berry Farm will charge $3.80 a pound for pick-your-own berries of both colors. Picked berries will be $9.25 a quart (about 1.25 pounds) or $6.65 a pint, and gooseberries are available. Berryland will charge pickers $3.75 a pound for red and black raspberries.
Hours at Champaign Berry Farm (937-232-7525) will be 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 2 to 8:30 p.m. Sundays. Berryland (937-568-4312) will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. It is closed Sundays.
The region has hundreds of thousands of people, noted Pullins, retired after 33 years with the Ohio Farm Bureau and who was serving as executive director of the Ohio Fruit Growers Association when he and his son launched the business.
In that area, “there are only a handful of growers,” he said.
In addition to pickers from Columbus, “We get a lot of people from Lima and Kenton and that area.”
Some drive from Marion, and “we’ve got regular people from Virginia and Kentucky that come each year,” he said.
Even relative newcomers Jake and Matt Kranz look forward to taking their favorite customers on a short golf cart ride to a prime picking spot. Springfielder Jess Leffel, 94, and a picker with staying power, is one the boys particularly like to see.
Some Springfielders continue to migrate as they have for decades to Stokes Berry Farm in Wilmington (stokesberryfarm.com 937-382-4004), where Dale Stokes has been growing and developing red and particularly black raspberries.
Stokes said he met a commercial grower, decided to give it a try “and here I am 50 years later.”
Pullins said just as he has tried to help Kranz, Stokes has tried to help him over the years — and worked to improve what Pullins describes as “a sensitive and valuable” crop.
Unlike strawberries and even red raspberries, black raspberry plants are closer to being wild than cultivated. Native to the Midwest, they can survive more severe winters than red raspberries, but their comparative lack of breeding means they don’t produce as much fruit.
High-maintenance, they require underground irrigation, must have their top growth pinched back to keep them from mushrooming from bushes into trees, and have to have the canes from one year’s crop removed so it can grow back the next year.
“That job has to be the hardest,” explained the seasoned Jake Kranz. “And, of course, they’re covered with thorns.”
His grandfather has also discovered black raspberries’ vulnerability to an orange rust “that cannot be prevented by any kind of spray and it cannot be cured once you have it.”
Stokes, the voice of experience in Ohio raspberries, describes the challenges dryly: “You don’t make mistakes growing black raspberries.”
If the health of the plants themselves can be dicey, one of their strengths is the health benefits of the berry “bioactives” studied by cancer researchers including Ohio State University’s Dr. Garry D. Stoner.
“We have clearly shown that berries, which contain a variety of anti-cancer compounds have a genome-wide effect on the expression of genes involved in cancer development,” Stoner said in a university press release.
He said the research suggests “that a mixture of preventive agents, which berries provide, may more effectively prevent cancer than a single agent that targets only a few genes.”
Stokes has since 1990 been selling freeze dried black raspberry powder, which concentrates the active ingredients in 10 pounds of berries into single pound of powder that can be mixed with water or fruit juice.
(Stokes discourages its use with yogurt and milk because “there is a potential for milk proteins to tie up some of the bioactives.”)
Just as Matt Kranz is following brother Jake into the business now, Kent Pullins followed his older brother Matt in the business, also to help pay for their college educations.
Now 34, Matt Pullins continues to be involved. Just as he looked after marketing and customer service, manual lab or and agronomics in high school and college, he now contributes the skills that landed him a job as the chief financial officer at PNC Bank in Pittsburgh.
He called the berry business “tremendous experience” that provided a “good foundation,” particularly the sense of what’s required “when it’s your business and you’re the one that’s responsible for everything.”
Brother Kent Pullins, now a materials engineer working with composites at GE Aerospace in Cincinnati, started “at the ripe old age of 10.”
He now works with his dad to coordinate “the operations sides of things, whether it’s fixing sprayers or coming up with new ideas for increasing production.
Last year, his fiance, Lindsay DeBrosse also got involved, launching the berry farm’s website, establishing an email list to communicate with customers and targeting advertising.
“I have to say it’s something I’ve fallen in love with and very much enjoy being part of the berry far as well as the family,” she said.
Both sons say it has kept their family closer.
As Kent Pullins puts it, “I’ve found the the farm to provide a lot of good excuses to pick up the phone and talk to my parents and my brother.”
While it has kept grandparents and grandchildren in close contact, the Kranz family’s experience shows that berry growing does not always produce universal agreement.
Mrs. Kranz, known to make a mean black raspberry cobbler, said that when her husband first suggested their venture, “he said it was going to be a lot of work. He didn’t tell me how much work.”
Mr. Kranz said the idea of growing black raspberries was appealing because “my wife liked them.”
Don’t worry. When the crop is in, the college fund fed and everyone’s had their share of grandma’s black raspberry cobbler, the finger pointing will be replaced by finger licking.
The Springfield News-Sun is committed to providing in-depth coverage of local businesses, including agricultural sectors that are a key part of Ohio’s economy.