Richard Barnes first began exploring ideas for new trellis systems at his Tanglewood Berry Farm in Indiana during the 2000s, aiming to improve cane and pest management while also increasing yields.
His work connected him with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research horticulturist Fumiomi Takeda, and in 2008 he won a phase one grant from the government agency, followed by a second one in 2010.
Speaking to Fresh Fruit Portal, Barnes explained one of the major problems with growing floricane blackberries in the Midwest was that the cold winters tended to inflict severe damage on the canes.
His solution – the Rotating Cross-Arm (RCA) Trellis System.
“With the rotating trellis we can train the canes in a specific fashion,” he said.
“It enables us to rotate the whole canopy down near the ground, and by getting them down in the winter and covering them with a very light row cover, the canes come out of winter with limited to no damage at all to and we can have a crop that following year.”
He described the discovery as a ‘big breakthrough’ for Midwest growers, as previously it had been a huge challenge to produce a substantial crop.
“There was no opportunity for commercial growing of blackberries in the Midwest, but this system has changed that.”
While facilitating production in cooler areas of the country had been the impetus behind the trellis system’s development, Barnes said several other important benefits had later been discovered.
“It increases harvest efficiency because all the berries are on one side of the trellis,” he said.
“Also, through the way that we’re training the canes, pest management is easier because you don’t have a very thick canopy – it’s less than 18 inches thick. So when you spray the efficacy is great.”
In addition, the trellis can be positioned to keep direct sun off the berries, thereby increasing quality.
“We greatly eliminate much of the red cell (Red druplet disorder) and the white drupelet syndrome the blackberries are known to get. So quality improves, the percentage of Grade A fruit increases, and consequently profits increase too,” he said.
He said this last aspect had proved hugely beneficial to growers who had used the trellis system in warmer areas of the country like Georgia, which Barnes said was more prone to sunscald.
The RCA system is now used on more than 50 farms around the country collectively covering some 500 acres, mostly in Indiana and Ohio but also in the likes of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia, Illinois, Kansas, and more recently, Florida.
Barnes’ company, Trellis Growing Systems, provides the ‘complete service’ to growers, not just selling them the equipment but also advising, installing the trellis and irrigation systems, and even helping to market the fruit.
He said the company markets fruit from around 300 of the 500 acres on which the RCA trellis is used.
“There’s a big demand now for locally grown produce, but blackberries are quite delicate and perishable. They don’t ship well and they have a short shelf life. We can be on the store shelves in a day or two here in the Midwest,” he said.
The berries are sold under the brand name of Nature’s Partner of California-based Giumarra Companies.
“They’re our distributor. We bring everything into a cold storage distribution point and then they sell it out of that, so they work hand in hand with us,” he said.
Trellis Growing Systems also helped to form cooperatives among local growers so that even farmers growing blackberries on a small amount of land can participate in the larger market.
“Farmers can come in with as little as one acre, but there is a minimum of 10 or 12 total acreage for the cooperative, and then they work together,” he said.
“This enables smaller farmers that maybe aren’t as capitalized as others to participate in the larger market. We’ve done several cooperatives in Indiana and Ohio that work that way.”
The RCA system has been sold to growers in some 40 different states, as well as Northern Europe and the U.K.
Barnes also develop an ‘Adjustable V’ trellis for primocane and floricane fruiting raspberries, with arms that open and close. The effect is lower pest pressure and increased yields as the run can get in and penetrate both sides of the canes.