Agriculture, Specialty/Niche September 01, 2021
Fruit to Tragic Fallow
Summoning the will to rekindle a one-of-a-kind orchard.
Bob Hays is still working to crawl his way out of mourning the loss of his life’s work. The thriving blackberry farm he jokes started accidentally also ended accidentally in 2016 when spray drift decimated thousands of plants.
His loss is also a loss for those passionate about blackberries. An amateur plant breeder, Hays had six blackberry varieties and two muscadine grape varieties of his own making among the nine miles of trellises crisscrossing his farm near Dumas, Mississippi.
When spray drifted into the farm valley, likely held there by a breeze and air inversion, it cloaked every plant. The paperwork for the plant patents sat on Hays’ desk never to be submitted.
“It took 14 years to get six varieties. I had thornless and thorned, large fruits, super sweet, ones with lots of juice and ones with very firm berries,” he recalls. “Of those six, only two varieties survived, and they’re still barely alive. I’m still working with them.” T
he highly desirable bronze seedless muscadine grapes that ate like a table grape didn’t stand a chance. “I spent 18 years on those, and every one is dead,” he says.
Tiny start. Hays didn’t mean to be a blackberry grower. He just loved the fruit. In 1999 his mother gifted him his first six plants. When they started producing, other people noticed and started asking for berries. So he planted a few more plants and then a few more.
“I doubled the number of plants every year until in 2004 I was spending at least 20 hours per week pruning, watering, weeding, tieing up and picking blackberries,” Hays says.
It was then he realized he’d stumbled into being a blackberry farmer. And he liked it. He shut down the construction company he started at 18 and became a full-time berry farmer in 2007.
He kept his pace of doubling every year. By 2012 he had nine miles of trellis, hosted 15-20 pickers every day and spent his time making deliveries and going to farmers’ markets with his certified organic blackberries.
“I slowly built my market until I was supplying 40 restaurants, 19 farmers’ markets, four bakeries and four fruit stands along with you pick,” he says. He grew 27 blackberry varieties each suited to their own purpose from juicing to freezing to eating fresh.
That 20-year market was lost in 2012 when spray drift lost him his organic certification. The whole farm was lost just four years later again to spray drift.
Both times, Hays was on the cusp of big moves. “In 2012 I was working with a broker. My fresh blackberries were about to start shipping to Israel, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and Norway. In 2016 I was days away from sending varieties to the USDA and a friend’s test farm prior to patent,” he says. Blackberry royalties are $1.40 per plant and average 6-8 million plants sold per patent life. Muscadine grape plants sell for $40 and yield an $18 royalty. Despite huge lost potential, Hays received no compensation for his losses. Lawyers wouldn’t take his case due to how long funds would be tied up before settlement, he says. “Yeah. I was severely depressed,” Hays says.
New roots. Thoughts of selling his trellises for scrap metal crossed his mind, but he left them stand as he went back to work in construction for a friend’s company.
But they stood while Hays mourned. Then, in fall 2020 he put in a few plants. And a few more. “Well, I love eating blackberries,” he smiles, revealing he’s already up to about 250 plants.
He doubts he’ll ever rebuild to what he had, but he’s finding a new path. He started the American Berry Growers Facebook community where he and other experts offer advice to more than 4,000 members, including tips he’s learned from doing his own pest control research.
For example, while hummingbirds provided pest control for his farm, he found spraying erythritol (sweetener) decimates fruit flies.
This summer he’s back at farmers’ markets selling blackberry-scented candles and soaps. Watch out Ivory and Yankee, Hays does well with accidental beginnings.
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