Use, Collection, and Growth of Berries, Fruits, and Nuts
by Michael Demchik, University of Minnesota Extension Service and Erik Streed, Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM) at the University of Minnesota
Wildcrafting of fruit is a time-honored tradition in the United States. Collecting juneberries "up north" or chokecherries along the fence row are the things that build childhood memories. While a great deal of nostalgia is associated with wild fruit, domesticated fruits offer the benefits of consistency in quality and yield as well as associated benefits in reduced labor in harvest. To generate the wild fruits flavors of our memories without the inconsistent yields and great time investment of harvest requires increasing the level of domestication of the fruit.
The level of domestication necessary to achieve a producer's goals depends on many factors. However, the goal of all producers of fruit is to generate consistently high yield of quality fruit with the least amount of labor and cost in maintenance, production, harvest and processing. I will use this goal statement to demonstrate the pros and cons of each level of domestication for the remainder of this article in an effort to allow a producer to make an educated decision.
Domestication of fruit has progressed for thousands of years with fruits such
as grapes. For many wild fruits, however, domestication has remained very
primitive. The level of domestication range from no domestication (i.e.,
solely wildcrafting) to the use of improved stock in controlled plantations.
These stages can include
One fruit processor, Minnesota Wild, bases an industry primarily on wildcrafted fruit. Wildcrafting fruit requires very low input costs (gasoline, labor, and a few essentials like buckets). Harvest can be concentrated only on fruits that are setting heavily and only in good years. Across Minnesota, different fruit is ripening from late May until September (even earlier and later in the southern portions of the state). This can allow four months of potential supplementary income, which permits a great deal of individual freedom from both the costs of land ownership (harvest is frequently legal on public lands) and time constraints (a picker can choose not to pick with no loss on an investment).
With these benefits come many costs. The yields from wild fruits are unpredictable and usually low. Often fruit quality is of variable and sometimes astoundingly poor quality. Every year, more land is fragmented and accessibility is reduced. Even in good years, the overall production of most wild plants in normal growing sites is low. Basing an industry on fruits with this level of uncertainty of production is difficult.
Wildcrafting provides the lowest cost option for maintenance and production; however, effort and cost in harvest will be the highest per unit of fruit generated. Additionally, wildcrafting will result in the lowest consistency of yield and fruit quality.
Intrinsic to stand improvement is assuring regeneration of the stand; making sure that the stand will be perpetuated. To improve a stand of fruit bearing plants, some knowledge of the biology of the plant is necessary. For example, many wild brambles (blackberries, raspberries, and dewberries) will only bear on second year growth. Many pomes (apples, crab apples, hawthorns) bear primarily on spurs. Many vines need suitable ventilation and can have fungal disease problems without good airflow. Most species in each class of fruit (for example, stone fruits like plums or cherries, brambles like blackberries, pomes like apples, and vines like grapes) have commercial relatives with numerous publications available even at the smallest public libraries. While experimentation is always fun, a little reading can make for greatly improved success of these experiments.
In many cases, improving the stand may not increase yields of fruit, just facilitate harvest. An example of this that is very common in Minnesota involves wild plums. Wild plums bear extremely heavy crops in some years. Hand harvest is feasible, but ripe fruits tend to fall from the branches at the slightest touch. Managing the stand by pruning of lower branches and removal of understory vegetation before the fruit ripens can take advantage of this characteristic. A tarp can be placed under the tree and the fruit gently shaken from the branches. Mowing paths through raspberry stands or pruning dead and overgrown wood out of pin or chokecherries are other examples of stand management that can benefit the harvester.
Stand improvement has the potential to reduce labor in harvest but results in an associated cost (albeit fairly small) in maintenance and production. A more significant cost is that land ownership is usually required for this type of management. Public land managers tend to dislike uninvited people running around with mowers and chain saws on their management units. In addition to reducing harvest costs, yield can often be dramatically increased with moderate efforts at stand management. Fruit quality and yield may still vary greatly between years.
Plantations can fit very well into people's existing land holdings. Field windbreaks, farmstead shelterbelts, living snow fences, edible landscaping, and small orchards are all easy ways to incorporate "wild" fruits into a farm, homestead, or even a city lot. Many field windbreaks are shrubs, particularly if a center pivot irrigation system is being used. Some of these shrubs can often benefit from the consistent irrigation that is provided for the crops while others suffer from excessive moisture. (See Harold Scholten, David D. Breitbach, Russell J. Haas, and Erling T. Jacobson. 1992. Shrub Species for Single-Row Field Windbreaks Under Center-Pivot Irrigation Systems. University of Minnesota Extension Service FO-06042: St.Paul, MN.)
Snow fences and shelterbelts usually have a shrub row and at least one row of hardwood trees. Fruit bearing plants can easily be used for these rows and do double duty in productive conservation. Edible landscaping provides even more benefits. Landscaping plants often receive good care and they are right outside the door, literally. Utilization of these plants for the dual purpose of landscaping and fruit production is a frugal way to generate additional income.
Plantations have greater outlays of money for maintenance and production; however, they return typically greater yield of high quality fruit than could be produced in true wild conditions. The consistency of yields can increase with plantations. The use of conservation grade planting material that has not been selected for fruit production can still result in great variability in fruit yield between years and between plants.
If you consider selecting your own varieties from wild stock, your likelihood of success is much lower than when using commercial stock. In selecting for the production of home-selected varieties, consider the following factors: fruit yield, fruit quality and plant form. Use of local planting stock is also a good idea. If a plant came from a local source, it is much more likely to be able to persist under the local weather conditions. Use of cuttings or root suckers of wild plants to produce planting stock will allow a producer to generate an exact genetic replica of the parents. If seeds are used for plant production, a great deal of variability in the resulting stock can be expected. While home selection is definitely more exciting than working with commercial stock, the likelihood of success is much lower. If significant income is to be generated from this enterprise, commercial stock is almost essential.
Whatever the decision to use commercial or home-selected varieties, records of fruit yield and quality are always useful in determining which plant varieties to keep and which to replace. Use of multiple varieties, especially if no one else in your area has ever attempted to cultivate this species, will allow a producer to assess new varieties and spread out the risk of the plantation. This will also reduce the effect of monoculture, which happens when one variety is planted extensively.
Referring to the goal of generating consistently high yield of quality fruit with the least amount of labor and cost in maintenance, production, harvest, and processing, use of good quality selected stock will significantly increase the cost of production (this stock is expensive), the cost of management will be similar to other plantations, but the cost of harvesting and possibly processing will be less. The yield will often be more consistent and higher than with mixed stock and fruit quality should be higher.
Increasing the level of domestication of wild fruits can have significant benefits for both producers and processors. Across Minnesota, both small- and large-scale processors utilize domestic fruit to produce jelly. Increasing the variety of commercially available fruit (especially those known as traditionally wild fruits) will serve as a way to set Minnesota-produced or locally crafted products apart from the other mass-produced fruit products. These products of distinction can benefit the producer, the processor, and the local economy.
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