Stephentown Berry Growers Pioneering New Insect Technology

Stephentown Berry Growers Pioneering New Insect Technology

It’s peak season for picking blueberries across New York State and one farm in the Capital Region is doing something unique to get a yield than many other growers in the area.

What You Need To Know

  • An invasive insect pest called the Spotted Wing Fruit Fly has been attacking berries across New York State since 2011
  • The Berry Patch in Stephentown, a no-spray farm, lost 40 percent of its blueberry crop in 2012
  • Co-owner Dale-Ila Riggs found preliminary research at Cornell University that showed fine mesh draped over the plants could prevent the pest
  • Riggs is now working with Cornell University, UVM and the NY State Dept. of Agriculture with grants to research the mesh

The Berry Patch in Stephentown is using a fine mesh to help prevent an invasive insect pest and doing research to potentially help growers all across the world.

The spotted wing fruit fly is an invasive insect that attacks berries in particular. It was first noticed by growers in New York in the fall of 2011. Unlike a regular fruit fly, which attacks over-ripe fruit in your home, the spotted wing fruit fly attacks produce as it’s ripening.

“The female, the way she lays her eggs is with what’s called an ovipositor, and it’s serrated, like a serrated knife,” said Dale-Ila Riggs, co-owner of The Berry Patch. “And she actually saws into the berries, lays her eggs in the berries, which then hatch into larvae as the berry is ripening so then you have little white squirmy things in your fruit. So it’s a little soft, it’s a little unappealing.”

Riggs and her husband Don Miles, the owners of The Berry Patch, say this little insect can create a big problem.

Riggs says in 2012 their plants were attacked, costing them 40 percent of their blueberry crop. The farm operates as no-spray, but the following year, Riggs says she had no other choice. After spending six nights a week for the entire growing season spraying insecticides, she sought another solution.

“Some preliminary research had been done at Cornell looking at this very fine mesh netting that had some promising results,” Riggs said.

So Riggs applied for a grant to try the netting. With a support structure already in place for netting to keep birds out, they were able to use it to support the new mesh.

“And it worked great. I’ve been using it for six years in a row, haven’t sprayed anything and for over six years we’ve had less than one percent infestation of this insect,” Riggs said.

She is traveling all over the U.S. to share her work. And now, with additional grants from Cornell, UVM and through the state agriculture department, she’s researching different support structures, such as steel versus wood, to hold the mesh, which will help other growers.

On top of that, researchers come to the farm weekly to collect samples seeing if the pest has made its way into their crop. This fall, with the help of the schools, they’re putting a series of videos on YouTube showing other farms how they built this structure at The Berry Patch.

“We’re definitely the pioneers and the first ones to do this, so that’s definitely pretty cool,” Riggs said.

In twenty years of owning the farm, it’s just the second year they’re offering pick-your-own blueberries. Because of the netting and coronavirus, the experience is a little different than most.

“We’ll make sure everyone understands the COVID-19 practices and then I’ll let them into our double-door vestibule, then they’ll let themselves into the second door, zip it up so that I can then enter for social distancing, and then I’ll take them and show the an awesome area to pick berries,” Riggs said.

And while Riggs says it’s wonderful to see families stopping by the farm to spend time together, she says there’s a bigger impact, not only right now, but because blueberries hold up better than some other fruits.

“I don’t know anything a whole lot better than having a fresh blueberry pie in January,” Riggs said. “Pick even more, put them in the freezer, blueberries are super, super easy to freeze. People eating properly and eating local product to help maintain, and hopefully improve, their health is really important as well. We have a huge crop in there, so we hope even more people turn up, because it’s the biggest crop we have ever had.”

You can pick your own blueberries at The Berry Patch Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Thursday from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. Riggs says she may also offer some ‘pop-up’ times in the coming weeks because their crop is yielding so many blueberries.

The Berry Patch offers other produce items for pre-order and pick, has an ‘honor system’ market at the front of the farm with fresh produce and you can find them at the Troy Waterfront Farmer’s Market every Saturday.

You can find more details about The Berry Patch on their website:


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