Central Oregon’s growing challenges are many. The short season is only 70-100 days and a measly 11 inches of rain fall in a year. There are drastic temperature swings, frost comes any time of year and the soils are low in organic matter. Despite these challenges, there’s a demand for local produce, especially fresh fruit, which is lacking.
Raspberries and strawberries are the most suitable berries for central Oregon because of their cold hardiness, but frost and winter injury are a major concern. Elsewhere in the country, growers use plastic high tunnels to extend the season. But the method is expensive and farmers in Oregon aren’t likely to plant perennial plants in a high tunnel unless it’s proven profitable. Still, farmers are interested.
In 2018, Clare Sullivan, assistant professor of practice in crop and soil science and OSU Extension small farms and specialty crops agent, started a research project with seven farms to evaluate berry production in high tunnels vs. open field. The goal is to determine whether growing berries in central Oregon is economically viable. Most farmers in the region are unfamiliar with growing so needed initial training, which Extension provided.
Sullivan, an associated faculty member at the Central Oregon Agricultural Research and Extension Center, was able to lease land and build two high tunnels with the participating farmers having smaller tunnels. In spring 2019, four varieties of raspberries and the same of strawberries were planted in high tunnels. Data was collected about berry flowering time, yield, percent culled, pests and air and soil temperatures.
The trial continues and the results showed significant yield and flavor differences in berry varieties and how they are grown. The yields of strawberries and raspberries improved when grown in high tunnels. Half of the farmers cooperating in the trials, workshops and field days say they intend to expand into berry growing. The ongoing research has the potential to increase the long-term financial security of small and mid-size farms in central Oregon by providing opportunities for diversifying crop production.