Ohio raspberry growers cultivating growth of cancer-fighting crop

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TOLEDO – According to the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service, raspberries are pretty close to being an unrecognized crop in Ohio. They are reported only by a few northeastern Ohio counties that are the traditional centers of berry production in the state.

There were 4 million pounds of strawberries grown in Ohio in 2001, and only 350,000 pounds of raspberries.

If raspberries are such a minor crop, why did they receive so much attention at the recent Ohio Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference in Toledo?

Raspberries are the crop of the future, says Sandy Kuhn, berry coordinator at Ohio State’s Piketon Research and Extension Center, who calls raspberries one of the “best crops that growers can make money raising.”

According to Kuhn, the Ohio Berry Strategic Plan is to have 3,000 acres planted in raspberries by 2008, producing 5 million pounds of fruit.

While such figures made some growers attending Kuhn’s session at the growers’ congress audibly gasp, the berry program at OSU is deeply involved in research that horticulturist Richard Funt believes will ensure the future of the raspberry.

Cancer fighter. The raspberry, particularly the black raspberry, is coming out on top of ongoing research to test the cancer-fighting potential of small fruits.

Ellagic acid found in a number of small fruits is a powerful antioxidant, and experiments with feeding freeze-dried fruit to rats have determined that it can retard the onset of cancer.

Experiments conducted by Gary Stoner at OSU’s James Cancer Hospital succeeded in reducing the development of tumors of the colon in cancer-induced rats by 50 percent, and cancers of the esophagus by nearly 70 percent. The rats were getting freeze-dried black raspberries.

Black gold. Black raspberries, Funt said, have some of the highest antioxidant levels found in foods. The varieties, Bristol and Jewel, have especially high acid content and concentrations of ellagic acid. They are also high in their total dietary fiber.

Black raspberry competition is the Caroline red raspberry, which also has a high acid content, although not as high as the black raspberries, but soars in comparison to black raspberries in Vitamin A and Vitamin C content.

More questions. “We don’t know how much is enough, or how often it should be taken, or who is most likely to benefit from eating berries,” Funt said. “And what if there is a better berry that can reduce the dose per day?”

These are all questions that have to be answered before raspberries become a recommended anticarcinogen, he said. He estimated the research will take another three to five years.

Buckeye berries. In the meantime, the berry program at Piketon is working with Ohio producers to increase raspberry production.

t recently commissioned a survey from the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service to find out exactly who was growing raspberries, how much was being grown, and how they were being marketed.

Black raspberries are already the largest raspberry crop in Ohio, totaling 63 percent of the raspberries grown.

Growers speculate that the blacks are the most popular because they were native to Ohio and the kind of berry that people have always eaten here. But they also bring the lowest price.

The remainder of the raspberry crop is mostly red summer or red fall raspberries. Only a few growers are harvesting purple or golden raspberries.

Although there are more acres planted to raspberries in the western part of the state, the production of these acres is still less than half of that in the northeast since these are primarily newly established beds.

In 2001, about 90 percent of the raspberries harvested were sold to consumers through a market that is part of the farm on which they were produced, a large proportion of that through pick-your-own operations.

Gearing up. The producers who participated in the surveys plan to increase planted acres by about 15 percent next year, which would mean more than 400 acres planted to raspberries. About 70 percent of the increase would be in black raspberries.

Funt said that if raspberries are going to be produced in Ohio as a nutraceutical food, there will have to be large increases in production, and there will also have to be a movement toward mechanical harvesting.

Ohio tests on the harvesters showed it is possible to harvest 1,000 pounds in an hour, he said. To pick at or below costs would require about 28 acres of berries.

He estimates that at least 50 percent of the berries picked in the future will probably be mechanically harvested.

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