Grower Profile: Merv Weeks, Weeks Berries of Paradise
Merv Weeks of Weeks Berries of Paradise has planted 26
acres of new raspberries and propagates new plants on-site.
Mervin Weeks, a Vernal, Utah native who has been farming in Paradise, Utah for 40 years, is known for his innovative farming practices, a result of his upbringing and school experiences. He earned a B.S. in Horticulture from BYU, where he helped evaluate the Hertitage raspberry, and an M.S. in Plant Science from USU. He then worked under Lamar Anderson, USU Professor Emeritus, until 1987, when he found he needed to spend full time on his expanding family farm.
Paradise is located in northern Utah, tucked away in the southern edge of Cache Valley. “It lives up to its name with the ideal climate, soil, and elevation (5,000 ft) for growing the best tasting berries,” says Weeks. The 110 acres he farms there were acquired piecemeal, from land purchases made starting in 1978. His largest acquisition of land was a parcel purchased from his friend, the late USU horticulture professor, Alvin Hamson, who developed the Hamson tomato.
Weeks takes a spirited approach to everything he does, and is a pioneer in farming and marketing. When he started farming back in the late 1970s, he sold produce from portable fruit stand trucks that traveled all over Utah, and even into Montana and Wyoming. “It was how we survived in the lean years.” Today, Weeks Berries sells fruit in permanent fruit stands, farmer’s markets, grocery stores, and specialty sales. A winery in Layton, who buys currants from the farm, received an international award for their black currant wine. A portion of the farm’s produce is processed on site into value-added goods. Merv says, “the most popular product is our freezer jam which is in over 100 stores.” Other items include currant and raspberry juices and gourmet jams and syrups.
When Weeks set out to develop his farm, he chose to plant a diversity of fruits, and dozens of varieties of each. The farm is most known for their raspberries, comprised of 20 varieties. “Canby is a variety that some specialists scoff at, but it’s a customer favorite for its sweetness. We also like Heritage for berries that travel easily, and Royalty for the jam. Cascade Delight is an interesting variety out of Washington and Oregon that we are looking at.” Weeks Berries also operates one of the largest currant farms in the nation (red, black, and white currants), and grows gooseberries, blackberries, grapes, elderberries, strawberries, and blueberries.
Blueberries in Utah?
Everyone knows that they are nearly impossible to grow in alkaline soils, but that didn’t stop the inventive Weeks, who in 2005, grew the first commercial crop in the state. The blueberries get special pampering of about a dozen practices to keep them thriving, including trellises and raised beds, wood chips and bark mulch, sulfur applications, netting to keep the birds out, and winter protection. In spite of that, Weeks wants to increase the crop. “In a good year, we harvest 500-700 cases of blueberries, with Duke being especially productive and tasty. My sons ask me why we bother with them, but managing them is a learning curve, and I tell them that some year we’ll reach 2,000 cases and it will all be worth it.”
Recently Weeks has begun looking at tree fruit varieties that are optimal for his high elevation area. He planted 20 varieties of pears, 45 varieties of plums, 20 varieties of apricots, and 50 varieties of peaches and nectarines. “Gloria is a very hardy peach out of New Jersey that we are looking at, and we also grow PF24 and several Stella series varieties.” Not satisfied with just fruits, Weeks recently installed a vented hoop house with 52 anchors in which to produce vegetables. This year he has 350 tomato (including Hamson) and 200 pepper plants thriving.
The isolation of the farm and ideal growing conditions mean that the farm’s berries can be grown pesticide free. “Raspberry horntail is one of our most serious pests, and we manage it by hand pruning to remove the larvae in the canes.” Birds, such as robins and starlings, are also a significant threat to yields. The farm uses cannons and other scaring devices, and netting on important crops like the blueberries. “The cadillac of bird control would be a falconer,” Merv says, but as an alternative, he wants to explore ways to attract raptors to scare off the smaller birds. He has already had success with owl boxes for rodent control.
The forward-thinking Merv is always ready to try new ideas and often collaborates with others on research projects. In 2009, he discovered that some of his currants were being attacked by currant borer, a nasty pest that causes heavy dieback and loss of yield. He contacted USU, and agreed to use his farm to trial a potential new mating disruption product. Other collaborative projects on his farm have included plant breeding and variety trials.
As with many farms in Utah, Weeks Berries is a family affair. Although the farm can employ as many as 100 workers in the height of picking season, Merv’s wife and kids help keep the farm running day to day. His son Jarrod manages the processing and marketing, Joe is his right hand man in the field, Jess runs the fruit stands, his daughter sells in the Logan farmer’s market, and his son, Jake, owns Jake’s Place, in Bear Lake, “making the best shakes around, from our berries, of course.” His wife, Clara Jean, has been “the cornerstone of the business since day one. She was instrumental in getting the fruit out to markets, and now, is tireless in doing the driving on long marketing, delivery, or consulting trips.”
Weeks Berries of Paradise is located at 8650 South 800 East and their produce is sold at farm stands in Wellsville, Hyde Park, Park City, Salt Lake City, and West Point. Their jams, syrups, and juices can be found in many grocery and specialty stores in the West. For more information, visit their website at www.weeksberries.com.
-Marion Murray, IPM Project Leader