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The Versailles Republican

July 23, 2015 • Headlines

The 2015 Ripley County 4-H Fair royalty remain lively, as they gather unscathed (all smiles and a little muddy) following their opening the last year of the RCF Greased Pig Contest. GARY FRANKLIN PHOTO
Brenda Carpenter returned home and happened to look outside when she saw smoke coming from her Blazer’s engine. She called 911, and while on the phone, the car caught fire. Delaware Fire Dept. was dispatched. The fire spread to the front of the house. There was nothing left of the car and the front porch siding melted. Delaware firefighter Rodney Steepleton hoses down the charred car. MARY MATTINGLY PHOTO
Tom Tepe Autocenter
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UPDATED July 28, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
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10 acres of blackberries grow in New Marion
Former resident jumps in fruit business

Mary Mattingly

Growing blackberries was a business decision for Jeff Champe. Well, sort of. A businessman by day, he grew up in the Versailles area and spent a lot of time on his grandparent’s farm in New Marion. A Zionsville resident, Champe had not forgotten his love of the countryside, and was looking to nurture those family farm roots.
Growing blackberries fulfilled that need. Why blackberries? The South Ripley graduate researched the blackberry fruit and growth system, and learned it gives a higher than average income or return on investment for farm acreage. “The benefit to growing is a timing issue. Blackberries in the domestic market get a higher price than other fruit commodities,” he said. The fruit is raised in Mexico, the southeast or the northwest where the climate differs from ours. “When their production season shuts down ours starts. The supply drops and demand increases so we positioned our fruit to hit that market,” Champe said.
Jeff Champe blackberry farm
Jeff Champe grows blackberries on his grandparent’s farm on W 450S.

Champe raises blackberries at his grandparent’s farm, Lee and Catherine Grigsby. His grandpa has passed away; so, his grandmother now rents out the other crop acreage. In 2011, he planted a third of an acre of blackberries, as a trial. In 2012, he planted trellis vines for 10 acres. Three years later he’s got quite the blackberry operation, selling wholesale to several big grocers such as Meiers, Walmart and Kroger. He uses a well-known distributor. There are just a few blackberry farms in Indiana. Besides the wholesale business, he also staffs the farmers markets, having been at the new Versailles market on a recent Saturday, but also the bigger city ones such as Columbus, Greensburg, Zionsville and Shelbyville. “It is working out and I enjoy doing it. Like most businesses, it will fail without a lot of labor. I put my heart and soul into it,” Champe, 43, said.

His goal is to expand to 20 acres in a couple of years, making more efficient use of his capital investment. The largest blackberry farm he knows of in the Midwest is 25-30 acres. The Midwest has about 385 acres of blackberry fields. Champe, the father of three, believes if all goes well he could give up his day job as a medical device salesman for Boston Scientific. “It’s a nice stress reliever to come here. I’d go nuts if I was stuck in the city,” he said.

About blackberry farming

“We have three varieties that allow us to pick throughout the season,” he said. Bushes are planted five feet from each other on raised beds, 117 rows, 300 feet long. “We measure in pounds per row foot. The goal is one pound per row foot, or five pounds per plant the first year, and if all goes well, you can expect an additional pound per row foot every year until the fifth year when it plateaus. It should be around 25 pounds per plant,” he said. The plants are good for 10 to 20 years. This wet year with the roots in saturated soil could knock off some years off the plant.”
Jeff Champe blackberry farm
Planting is in early May. Harvesting is currently underway. He said, “We like to shoot for at the latest mid August as the last picking day.”

Finding labor

Getting the fruit picked is his biggest challenge as a farmer. “Labor is the most difficult issue our industry is dealing with now. You can’t find good reliable domestic labor.” It is hot, hard work, and the pay is less than favorable for local workers ($11.63 per hour which is the prevailing migrant worker wage, but way above state minimum wage, he notes). After the first year, Champe employed migrant workers. He went through a federal program which allows workers from places like South Central America or Mexico to come on temporary work visas. “Before the worker picks a berry it costs us about $1,000 to $2,000 per worker just to get them here.”

Monitoring labor costs, this year they have nine workers and they should be finished pulling berries before October. Part of the regulation with the federal program is to provide housing or pay the worker’s rent, tools and transportation to the field and/or for necessary day to day life, such as groceries, banking, etc. He wants highly skilled workers, ones who know when a berry is ripe, or if there is a fungus The federal paperwork is so extensive most small farmers like himself contract it out. He is grateful for his stepbrother, Jamie Steele, who manages the workers daily and oversees much of the operation, which allows him to manage his sales job in Zionsville. Champe gets to the farm always on weekends, and at least once midweek. He helps staff the local farmer markets.

Timing is a big issue with blackberries. Once they are ripe, red to black, they are picked, and within 45 minutes must be in cold storage or it will start to decay. The flats are taken to a cooler, or put in front of a fan, to bring the internal temperature down. “We have fruit that would last up to two weeks after picked. Everyday, we are talking to our wholesaler,“ he said. As for the price, the grocer determines what he thinks the customer will pay for a certain size package and negotiates. Blackberries, blueberries and raspberries have a high level of antioxidants, something health conscious consumers desire.

In the rural area, he often hears comments from people that they have a blackberry bush in their backyard and can easily pick from it. It’s not the same though. “We grow a variety that comes in before theirs. The way we grow it and cover in the winter, allows us to have early fruit,” Champe said. And it’s a large, good looking, tasty berry, he says proudly. He lets others be the judge though, and offers samples at the farmers market. They usually walk away with a pint.

Pick up this week's edition of The Versailles Republican for the stories below and more local news. Subscribe by clicking the subscribe link or call 812-689-6364.

• Murder trial begins Tuesday (front page)
• Scouts impress Milan board (front page)
• Friendship Bank employee treks West for youth hiking adventure (page 2)
• Ripley County Local Emergency Planning Committee presents awards (page 3)
• Building a back-to-school budget (page 4)
• Senior group donates crafts for patients (page 6)
• Versailles council considers park security (page 8)
• On the Record from the Ripley County Courthouse (section B, page 2)
• Versailles Town Court (section B, page 5)
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