How to Grow Your Own Berry Farm
by Mary Jasch
It’s early September and Maryann Huff Casciano is getting a little torn up by her black raspberry patch, but not so much by the red raspberries. As owner, designer, planter and grower of all 240 blueberries and 70 raspberries of seven varieties and five huge elderberry bushes at Rockywood Farm in Newton, New Jersey, she is getting them ready for a second successful season in 2021.
She is taking out the old canes and tipping off the exuberant raspberries that are sending out six-foot side branches aiming to root themselves in the dirt, then putting them back inside the neat wire fences where they must grow tidily and lush, and then, finally, digging out the errant babies who have already rooted and broken free. Maryann is solo farmer here.
This year, 2020, was Maryann’s first season at growing and selling her own crop. “The elderberries came in real well. There was a lot of interest in them. I was able to really keep up with demand. I did way better than what I thought I was going to do.”
Rockywood Farm, named by her grandfather, produced chicken, meat and eggs since the 1920s. “I’m third or fourth generation so it’s kind of a responsibility, but it’s a joy for me. I wanted to preserve the family homestead. I would have felt like a quitter if I hadn’t tried,” says Maryann, who uses her grandmother’s tools and her grandfather’s farm name. “It was a challenge. I had the fear of failing but I jumped in. If I didn’t make the effort for this, I would have regretted it. It would have been the easy thing not to do – sell it – put a house or two back here. But would my spirit be happy with that?”
Rockywood now grows certified organic blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries and garlic. Lavender is a wish in progress. She wanted to do perennial crops and since she grows raspberries at home in Connecticut, she already knew how to grow them. “I thought it would be easy but it’s not. But to come back (to the farm) and hit it hard, it’s really fun. I get such a great sense of accomplishment.”
Armed with a BA in Economics from Rutgers, the State University, an MBA from the University of Rhode Island and teaching at a community college, Maryann decided it was time to follow her dream of farming. “My husband was Captain of a submarine, on active duty in the US Navy. We had four kids and I kept the home fires burning. I really felt that my kids were suffering if their father was on deployment, out to sea. I became an enabler. I enabled my husband to pursue his dream. You only get one shot at raising a kid. I made my kids a priority. When my youngest went to Ohio State, I said ‘It’s Mommy’s turn.’ I supported my husband. It’s his turn to support me.”
Maryann has paid her dues. She investigated everything. The results: she planted the rows of blueberries and raspberries on a true North to South axis and, knowing that gardening is also art, she played with the layout on graph paper, marked the field out and scalped it with a lawnmower. She wanted a center isle and eight to nine feet between rows for good air flow and five to six feet between bushes. She researched varieties and contacted NOFA to learn how to grow berries organically, have a succession of them and which ones are not prone to disease.
For the entire summer of 2016, she interned on farms, learning, researching and trying to find an organic blueberry provider. “I also had a budget: $1,000 for blueberry plants.” She tested the soil and went to farm class at Holistic Management International in Connecticut. “I realized, ‘Oh my god! I’m on Election Day going to farm school!’ I was there early!”
She joined Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) CT and NJ and contacted a permaculture man from Connecticut who was a friend to the land, she says. “I wanted fresh eyes. I was stuck. He was very helpful. I knew I wanted to grow organic and protect the family homestead. He came in May.
"I decided to do double digging. I had 30 tons of compost delivered. I was the grunt on the ground. He dug and brought peat moss. I shoveled it in. I had all the rows done. I planted all highbush blueberries. Then I laid out raspberry rows, scratched the ground, and put in rye and tillage radishes and added leaves and grass. I put in irrigation last summer."
Two years ago, she put in bareroot raspberry bushes and the elderberries. This year, they are all huge and people are coming to pick.
Says Maryann: “This has been my spot. It’s kind of an honor to maintain it. Gardening and farming are art. Food is art. Organic is very important to me.”
Check out Rockywood Farm here: www.rockywoodfarm.com
Open in 2021: Wednesday & Friday by appointment only. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday open to the public.
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published September 21, 2020