Nourse Farms, a berry giant
“Berry season is a wild ride,” says Rachel Monette, a longtime employee of Nourse Farms in Whately. Every summer it hits with intensity, like a sweet red raspberry bursting on your tongue. Then, all too soon, it fades, leaving memories like blueberry-stained fingers and cheeks still puckered at the thought of tart currants.
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, gooseberries – local farmers grow dozens of varieties of berries like these, offering an amazing diversity of taste, color, size and availability throughout the summer. Many of these berry plants originated at Nourse Farms, which, since owner Tim Nourse moved the farm to Whately in 1968, has grown into an unassuming giant in the berry business.
“Nourse Farms supplies small fruit plants to commercial growers, retailers and home gardeners in the United States and abroad, and provides technical support and advice to anyone growing our plants,” Monette explains. At this time of year they also sell their own freshly picked berries at the Nourse Farms Berry Tent on the River Road in Whately.
Each year the farm sells over 40 million plants, propagated and bred on over 1,000 acres of laboratory space, greenhouses and fields in Whately, Hatfield, Deerfield, Northfield and Montague, and an additional 75 acres in the of Washington used for growing rootstocks. They sold to more than 1,200 customers in Massachusetts alone last year — from homeowners buying a few dozen plants to farmers buying enough to cover acres.
“I don’t think most locals realize how big we are,” says Monette, “but if you buy berries at a local grocery store, chances are the berries are from Nourse’s plant stock. Farms.”
In the plant world, propagation refers to the methods by which new plants are derived from existing plants. This definition is necessarily vague because, compared to other organisms, there are a surprising number of ways to feed a new plant. Most Nourse Farms berry plants begin their journey in a lab, born from tissue cultures taken from parent plants.
Monette says this “micropropagation” strategy has helped Nourse Farms establish its reputation as a producer of healthy planting material. They’ve been perfecting it since the 1980s, when Tim Nourse saw these techniques used to grow orchids and later strawberry plants in United States Department of Agriculture research labs. He decided to apply them to other berries as well, and built the farm’s first tissue culture laboratory soon after.
Early lab propagation gives Nourse growers significant control over growing conditions and sterility, and enables them to scout out certain diseases, pests and defects. These lab-grown plants then provide material for further propagation in their greenhouses and nurseries, growing the final plants sold to customers. These techniques tend to produce very vigorous plants. So much so that “we guarantee they will grow,” says Monette. “Otherwise, we will replace them.”
With this system, Nourse propagates and sells dozens of varieties of berries, as well as other local favorites such as asparagus and rhubarb. “We are constantly working with breeders and researchers to explore new varieties,” says Monette. Those who provide something new and necessary are part of the Nourse catalog.
“The most attractive are often varieties that ripen at the end of the season, sooner or later, and have high production and disease resistance,” she says.
July is for eating berries, not planting them – it’s an early spring activity for most varieties. But for those inspired by the sweet harvest around them, Nourse Farms is already accepting pre-orders for delivery in 2023, strictly by phone. Their catalog is available online and online orders will begin in October.
After receiving plants from Nourse, anyone can call their customer service for advice. “People may have a very small order, and we’ll always hold their hand planting and taking care of everything,” Monette says. “And our website has so much to offer home gardeners all the time.”
Most berry plants take a few years to establish and produce fruit. With the Nourse Farm Berry tent, no one needs to wait that long to sample some of their most popular varieties, all grown just a few miles from Whately.
“Right now it looks like a rainbow,” Monette says. “Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, black raspberries, red and green currants, and red currants are here now, but every week the options change.”
“When I go to barbecues, I bring a dish with containers of all kinds of berries for people to try,” she says, excited to introduce something new to her friends. “Most people haven’t had the opportunity to compare the taste of a red currant to that of a green currant. Or to see how if you roll them between your fingers before putting them in your mouth, they get a little sweeter.
“Yellow raspberries are a delight in my house,” she notes. “My children prefer them to any other fruit and fight the birds for them in our garden.”
Another less common choice are currants, delicate orbs ranging from pale pink to deep midnight purple depending on the variety, all packing a tart punch. “They ripen around the beginning of July and can be eaten fresh, although most people prefer to make them into juice, jelly or wine.”
The timing of all these berry seasons changes every year depending on the conditions. Most are ripe for a few transient weeks. “It’s always a little different every year,” Monette remarks, “and before you know it, we’re done. This year, the season might end a little earlier than we’d like, so get them before they’re gone.
The Nourse Farms Berry Tent is open from early June to mid-July, Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., depending on conditions. To confirm hours and availability on a given day, call ahead at 413-665-2650.
To learn more about local farms and where to buy or pick your own locally grown berries, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).