Valley Bounty: Nourse Farms, a berry giant

  • An aerial view of Nourse Farms’ main location in Whately. CONTRIBUTED/JANNA THOMPSON

  •  “Buy Local Berries!” Berries and an encouraging sign at Nourse Farms in Whately. PHOTO BY JANNA THOMPSON

  • Raspberries grow in careful rows in a Nourse Farms berry field. CONTRIBUTED/JANNA THOMPSON

  • Strawberries blossoming in Nourse Farms berry fields in late spring. PHOTO BY JANNA THOMPSON

  • The Nourse Farms Berry Tent on River Road in Whately is open from early June to mid-July, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. CONTRIBUTED/JANNA THOMPSON

  • In vitro strawberry plantlets are grown under lights in Nourse Farms growth room. PHOTO BY JANNA THOMPSON

  • Senior Lab Tech Aimee Hudon at Nourse Farm. PHOTO BY JANNA THOMPSON

  • A snapshot of the local berry season, featuring (front to back): red currants, blackberries, red gooseberries, green gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. PHOTO BY JANNA THOMPSON

For the Gazette
Monday, July 18, 2022

‘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, too soon, it fades, leaving memories like blueberry-stained fingers and cheeks still puckering at the thought of tart currants.

Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, currants — 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 began life 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 across the U.S. and internationally, and provides technical support and advice to anyone growing our plants,” Monette explains. This time of year, they also sell their own fresh-picked berries at the Nourse Farms Berry Tent on River Road in Whately.

Each year the farm sells more than 40 million plants, propagated and raised on over 1,000 acres of lab space, greenhouses and fields in Whately, Hatfield, Deerfield, Northfield and Montague, and another 75 acres in Washington state used for growing rootstock. They sold to over 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,” Monette says, “but if you purchase berries from a local grocery store, there is a very good chance the berries came Nourse Farms plant stock.”

In the plant world, propagation refers to the methods by which new plants are derived from existing plants. That definition is necessarily vague because, compared to other organisms, there are a surprising number of ways to nurture 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 strategy of “micropropagation” helped Nourse Farms establish its reputation as a producer of healthy planting stock. They’ve been perfecting it since the 1980s, when Tim Nourse saw these techniques used to grow orchids and later strawberry plants at 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 lab soon after.

Lab propagation at the start gives Nourse growers significant control over growing conditions and sterility, and lets them screen for certain diseases, pests and defects. These lab-grown plants then provide material for further propagation in their greenhouses and nursery fields, growing the final plants sold to customers. These techniques tend to produce very vigorous plants. So much so that, “We guarantee they will grow,” Monette says. “If not, we’ll replace them.”

With this system, Nourse propagates and sells dozens of varieties of berries, along with other local favorites such as asparagus and rhubarb. “We consistently work with breeders and researchers to explore new varieties,” Monette says. Those that provide something new and needed make the cut for the Nourse catalog.

“The most appealing ones are often varieties that ripen on the bookends of the season, either early or late, and have high production and disease resistance,” she says.

July is for eating berries, not planting them — that’s an early spring activity for most varieties. But for those inspired by the sweet harvest around them, Nourse Farms is already accepting preorders for 2023 delivery, strictly over the phone. Their catalog is available online, and online ordering will begin in October.

After receiving plants from Nourse, anyone can call their customer service line for advice. “People can have a really small order, and we’ll still hold their hand through planting and caring for everything,” Monette says. “And our website has so much to offer to 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 within a few miles of Whately.

“Right now, it looks like a rainbow, ” Monette says. “Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, black raspberries, red and green gooseberries, and red currants are here now, but every week the options change.”

“When I go to barbecues, I bring a flat with containers of all different kinds of berries for people to try,” she says, excited to introduce her friends to something new. “Most people haven’t had the chance to compare the taste of a red gooseberry to a green gooseberry. Or to see how, if you roll them between your fingers before popping them in your mouth, they get a bit sweeter.”

“Yellow raspberries are a delicacy in my house,” she notes. “My kids prefer them over any other fruit and fight the birds for them in our backyard.”

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 early July and can be eaten fresh, though most folks prefer to make them into juice, jelly, or wine.”

The timing of all these berry seasons shifts each year depending on conditions. Most are ripe for a few fleeting weeks. “It’s always a little different every year,” Monette remarks, “and before you know it, we’re wrapping up. This year the season might end a little sooner 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 to 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 any given day, call ahead at 413-665-2650.

To learn more about local farms and places 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).