California blackberry grower Eduardo Garcia of Ventura County sees the writing on the wall as government regulators continue to clamp down on the use of crop protection materials in agriculture.

Garcia is a crop consultant, pest control adviser, and first-generation berry grower. He is well aware of the potential impact over the impending loss of the fumigant methyl bromide in California agriculture.

Preplant fumigants kill soil-borne diseases including verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt — key diseases in berry production - plus soil-borne pests and weeds. Fumigants are used in more than 100 commodities in the U.S. 

Regulators contend methyl bromide emissions enter the air and deplete the Earth’s ozone layer.

“The future of the California berry industry is under threat due to the loss of methyl bromide,” Garcia said. “The problem is alternative products on the market are not as effective.”

This spring, Garcia, 27, launched his commercial blackberry farm in the Santa Clara River Valley in Santa Paula. The launch was based on the methyl bromide issue and potential profitability at the forefront.

“We have to look for different ways to grow berries,” said the young farmer.

Garcia’s California Coast Farm includes five acres of soilless, conventionally-grown blackberries on leased land surrounded by steep hillsides and rocky terrain blanketed by avocado and citrus groves.

Driving to the farm, located about 1,000 feet above sea level over the valley plain floor and 15 miles from the coast, is a jostling experience.

Instead of soil, Garcia planted 4-inch to 6-inch blackberry plugs in a planting medium called coir which is placed in 3-gallon plastic pots.

Coir consists of different parts of the coconut husk, including the outside hair-like fiber, peat scrapped from the inside of the husk, plus chips from the crushed husk.

Coir is sometimes used in the greenhouse plant industry.

The absence of soil eliminates the need for fumigation. Coir is free of bacteria and fungal spores.

Centuries ago, Indian navigators who sailed the seas to Malaya, Java, China, and the Gulf of Arabia made ship ropes with coir.

“I believe coir can work very well in blackberry production,” Garcia said.

“Coir allows me to better control the crop compared to production in the soil. Soil has inherent properties which I cannot change. I can control every aspect with coir. The issue of fumigation is a non-issue in soil-less production.”

Passion of farminig

Garcia intends to plant another 35 acres of blackberries in coir over the next few years.

The blackberry plant is a perennial which is replaced about every three years. Garcia planted the Prime Ark 45 blackberry variety.

As a new grower, Garcia understands there is a lot to learn about berry production. He respects the generations of berry growers who have preceded him. Garcia shares the passion for berry farming.

Garcia initially studied engineering at California Polytechnic University, Pamona. During his studies, Garcia was intrigued by the diverse crops grown in the area; so much so that he enrolled in several agriculture classes. He was hooked on agriculture — hook, line, and sinker.

Garcia dropped his engineering quest and received a bachelor’s degree in agronomy. He minored in pest control. His college senior ag project was a strawberry fertility trial. Garcia is now pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree.

“My agronomy classes helped me understand that plants do all the work and how plants react to pruning and fertilization,” Garcia said. “As growers, we guide the plants. The key is to allow plants to progress naturally while keeping them pest-free.”

As part of his blackberry research, Garcia consulted with growers in California’s largest blackberry region - the Watsonville area in Santa Cruz County. He also talked with growers in the State of Baja California in northern Mexico.

According to the Ventura County ag commissioner’s office, Ventura County is the second largest berry-producing county in California behind Monterey County. Berry production in Ventura County is an $800 million business annually with more than 14,000 acres planted in strawberries and raspberries alone. Strawberries by far are the top crop. Blackberry acreage is small in comparison.

Profitability is a key reason why Garcia entered blackberry production. In the West, the blackberry market is dominated during the spring and summer months by fruit from the Watsonville area and the Pacific Northwest. Mexican-grown berries flood the market during the winter months.

The late summer-early fall period is when blackberries are absent from the market. This is the window where Garcia aims to have his berries on the fresh market.

Hitting the market during this overall crop downtime is when blackberry grower prices generally increase. Garcia believes his blackberries can fetch a premium.

In addition, Garcia believes the use of coir will allow him to manipulate the plants to extend the growing season.

“The use of coir will allow me to better control the plants,” Garcia said. “If I can hit this market niche with a decent price for the berries then I’ll be successful.”

Garcia is aiming for 20,000 pound yields per acre annually using coir. He says current soil-based blackberry production yields about 15,000 pounds to 20,000 pounds per acre annually.

Garcia picked his first berries this summer. Garcia and several other workers hand-pick the mouth-watering fruit several times a week.

Blackberry rewards

To water the crop, Garcia estimates his annual well water use will total about 1 acre-foot per acre, all delivered by above ground spike drip. Plant nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and manganese are delivered by irrigation.

The coastal region receives about 12 to 15 inches of rainfall annually.

Once the Santa Ana winds pick up each fall, Garcia will install ‘hoop houses’ — temporary, partially-covered greenhouses — above the plants for protection.

One drawback of coir use versus soil, Garcia says, is coir lacks the plant insulation provided by soil during the winter months.

While coir provides some disease control, root rot can still occur.

This summer and fall, Garcia has direct marketed his berries to restaurants and other markets within California. His berries share store shelves next to containers from some of the largest berry companies in the business. This makes Garcia feel proud.

“Each of my customers has been very pleased with my blackberries. It’s rewarding when you see your berries on the shelf in the store.”

Garcia concluded, “I love farming and believe it’s a noble cause.”

Spoken like a true farmer.

cblake@farmpress.com