Organic Currant and Gooseberry Production
Currants and gooseberries are tart, delicious, and healthful fruits which are increasingly grown on organic farms in the Upper Midwest. My goal here is to introduce these two berry crops and highlight key considerations for new growers, based on our own experience growing them in southwest Wisconsin and on my conversations with other farmers and researchers.
Begin by considering your markets. Neither currants nor gooseberries are widely grown or consumed in the U.S. It’s unrealistic to expect consumers to buy them in the same volume as more widely known blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries. In our experience currants and gooseberries sell poorly in grocery stores, where they are not aggressively marketed and remain largely unnoticed besides more common fruits. Currants and gooseberries can be good additions to a farmers market stand, where farmer-vendors can tout the berries’ flavor and healthful properties and provide samples and serving suggestions. Some growers have also found profitable niche markets selling to immigrants from parts of eastern Europe, where these berries are more widely consumed.
Fresh currants and gooseberries are too tart for many consumers’ tastes. Some possible exceptions are Pink Champagne currants, which are sweet, bubbly, and lovable, and highly flavored gooseberry varieties such as Tixia and Black Velvet, which are delicious and only slightly tart if allowed to fully ripen on the plant. Overall, I recommend caution in planting currants or gooseberries for fresh market – although these berries can be profitable components of a diverse farm, demand for them is limited.
Currants and gooseberries can be processed into juices, jams and jellies, syrups, and alcoholic beverages. Berries sold to local processors command a lower price than fresh market berries. From our experience and others’ reports, prices at commercial processors are less than $4 or $4.50 per pound. Retail prices for local organic fresh currants and gooseberries generally range from $5-$8 per pint, which translates to approximately $7.50-$12.00 per pound.
The health benefits of these berries have received attention. Black currants have particularly high levels of antioxidants and Vitamin C. Note that black currants are a distinct plant from red, white, and pink currants, with the black currants have a pronounced flavor (often described as “earthy”); many people find black currants’ flavor to be strong and unpleasant unless they are blended with other fruits and/or sweetened in processed products.
Switching away from marketing, consider how these berries can fit into your farm. From a farm management perspective, harvest labor is probably the predominant issue in growing currants and gooseberries. Don’t jump into a large planting of these berries unless you have the time to pick them (or you are planning to buy an expensive imported machine harvester!) In the Upper Midwest, currants and gooseberries generally ripen in July or late June. It may be wise to select varieties which can extend the harvest and marketing window. An early currant variety like Jonkheer van Tets, e.g., ripens at least two weeks earlier than the late variety Rovada.
Harvest labor is an important factor in your choice of varieties and growing methods. Currants are borne in clusters, called strigs, and an entire strig can be picked at once, which speeds harvest in varieties such as Rovada or Blanka, which produce heavy, well-filled strigs. Pink Champange is a delicious currant variety, but it produces small poorly filled strigs which are slow to harvest. We have found that we typically can only pick 5-10 lbs per hour of Pink Champagne, versus 20-30 (or even 40) lbs per hour of Blanka or Rovada. Gooseberries produce fruits individually or in small groups, which slows picking, and gooseberries are thorny, which induces high levels of fear in fruit pickers and further slows the harvest. Yield is another important factor influencing picking speed. High yielding varieties such as Captivator or Hinnomaki Red gooseberries are much faster to harvest, because pickers spend less time hunting and searching for fruit.
The yields of currants and gooseberries can be high, up to 300-400 lbs of currants or 200 lbs of gooseberries per 100 feet of row on our farm, so a modest planting may meet local demand and also exhaust your labor supply.
Currants and gooseberries are both vigorous, easy to establish plants which begin to fruit in their second year. Bare-root plants are readily available from nurseries, although it can be hard to locate specific varieties in commercial quantities. It is also possible to purchase plugs (small plants grown in trays and sold with an intact root ball), although we have found that plugs establish and come into production more slowly than bare-root plants.
Currants and gooseberries should be trained and/or pruned, to thin out the canopy, ease harvest, and improve fruit size and quality. In the United States most currants and gooseberries are grown as freestanding bushes, planted approximately three feet apart within the row. Bush plants are generally pruned each winter to maintain a plant with 10-12 canes divided evenly between one-, two-, and three-year old canes. Freestanding bushes require relatively little time or money to establish and are simple to maintain. I particularly recommend this method for busy, diverse farms with little time and attention to spare during the growing season.
In Europe, currants and gooseberries for fresh market are generally grown on a trellis using the “cordon trellis method.” Plants are spaced closely, 1.5 feet apart within the row, and each plant is pruned to 1-3 permanent vertical stems (the cordons), which are supported by a trellis and can reach six feet high. Fruit is produced on short horizontal branches growing from the cordons, and these fruiting branches are regularly pruned off and regrown. We’ve trialed the cordon trellis method on our farm for four years. The chief benefit of the cordon trellis is a very narrow plant canopy with excellent light penetration, resulting in good quality fruit which ripen uniformly and are easy to pick. Disadvantages are the high startup costs required for trellis construction and for the higher plant density and also the regular pruning and training required during the growing season - not just in winter. Given the high startup costs, it’s important to maximize yields from trellised plantings. I only recommend this method for growers who can focus on growing these fruits and working out the details of the trellising method.
These berries are shallow rooted crops which do not tolerate competition from grasses and other weeds. Organic mulches such as wood chips can suppress weeds but tend to be invaded by spreading perennial weeds over time and thus require hand-weeding for maintenance. Currants and gooseberries also have a tendency to spread over time, as low-lying branches root into the soil, leading to diffuse crop plants intermingled with weeds, which are frustrating and slow to hand-weed. Synthetic mulches such as landscape fabric are less desirable from an environmental standpoint but do provide better weed control over time, and they also prevent berry branches from rooting and thus keeping the crop contained. Under organic regulations these plastic mulches will also need to be removed before they degrade into the soil, which can be extremely difficult if grass has grown over and into the mulch.
Currants and gooseberries can suffer from serious diseases, an important consideration on organic farms. White Pine Blister rust is a foliar disease which infects both currants and gooseberries. This disease requires that both pines and the berries be present to complete its life cycle. Resistant berry varieties are available, and it’s generally recommended to choose resistant varieties where white pines are present. Powdery mildew can severely infect susceptible currant varieties, particularly in warmer parts of the Midwest. If you wish to grow a susceptible variety, such as Blanka, researchers have found that a 1% solution of horticultural oil (such as the OMRI-approved JMS Stylet Oil) provides good control when sprayed regularly starting in spring. Anthracnose leaf spot can heavily infect gooseberries, causing leaf spots and major defoliation. Trials on our farm show that sprays of copper soap (Cueva brand) can control this disease, and some varieties such as Hinnomaki Red are at least partially resistant. In general, if currants and gooseberries are a small component of a diverse produce farm, I highly recommend planting disease-resistant varieties. A minor crop on your farm probably will not merit the attention needed for regular disease sprays during the growing season.
All in all, currants and gooseberries are healthful, delicious fruits which can thrive on organic farms in our region. Currants are particularly easy to grow, high-yielding plants; gooseberries can be more challenging crops because of their sharp thorns, lower yields, and greater disease pressure. The labor-intensive harvest and limited market demand are challenges in growing both of these berries.
Barney, Danny L., and Kim E. Hummer. 2005. Currants, Gooseberries, and Jostaberries: A Guide for Growers, Marketers, and Researchers in North America. Food Products Press.
Currant Production in the Upper Midwest. www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzunrQsTFho
Black Currants: A Superfruit for the Midwest. www.savannainstitute.org/blackcurrants/
Cordon Trellis Method for Currants and Gooseberries. www.twoonionfarm.com/CordonTrellisResultsSummaryFebruary2023.pdf
Organic Control of Anthracnose Leaf Spot in Gooseberry. www.twoonionfarm.com/WebsiteReportAnthracnoseLeafSpotGooseberry.pdf
Chris McGuire and his wife Juli farm at Two Onion Farm in Belmont WI, where they raise organic fruit for their local community. Perplexingly, they do not grow onions.
Contact Chris at email@example.com
Issue: Oct 2023
By: Chris McGuire