Peerbolt links farmers, researchers
Tom Peerbolt considers himself a link between berry farmers and the scientists who study their crops.
As a crop consultant for growers in the Northwest, he relays their problems and questions to university researchers.
Through his website and newsletter, Peerbolt also conveys the latest information to farmers about emerging pests, diseases and regional trends.
Peerbolt’s role as a jack-of-all-trades in the berry industry has created a multifunctional business that draws funds from on-farm scouting, research grants and newsletter sponsorships.
“It’s made for a diversified income base,” said Peerbolt, whose company now employs four year-round and four seasonal workers.
Working on the front lines of the Northwest berry industry has been anything but boring in recent years, as farmers contend with a new threat — the spotted wing drosophila. The Asian fruit fly, which targets ripe fruit, is now the primary target of the berry industry’s battle against pests, said Peerbolt.
“We’re in the midst of rebuilding our integrated pest management programs,” he said.
Farmers rely on Peerbolt’s company to monitor for pests and diseases, then hit them at their most vulnerable while minimizing chemical usage.
Rather than spraying on a strict schedule, these growers react to on-the-ground conditions in the insect or a pathogen’s life cycle.
Aside from spotted wing drosophila, farmers also face the prospect of other foreign threats on the horizon, like the brown marmorated stink bug.
“Global integration is great in a lot of ways but it also opens us up to new risks as well as opportunities,” Peerbolt said.
On the upside, international trade has provided access to new markets.
In recent years, for example, Oregon growers have begun exporting fresh blueberries to South Korea.
Since South Korea first accepted the fresh Oregon crop in 2012, Peerbolt has acted as a third-party certifier to ensure growers prevent the introduction of certain pests into that country.
To keep his database of information up-to-speed with field conditions, Peerbolt continually overhauls his company’s software system.
Currently, he’s upgrading the system so field scouts can immediately input data from their tablet computers.
“It will make the recordkeeping and information more accessible,” Peerbolt said.
While his company now emphasizes grower-oriented services, research grants were initially a major funding source.
In 1999, for example, Peerbolt collaborated with researchers from Oregon State University and Washington State University to study parasitic wasps as a control method for leaf rollers.
“Grant funding is very unstable but it’s great for getting a business going,” he said.
Peerbolt launched his current company in the 1990s after working in several occupations across the U.S.
His first career involved counseling runaways and drug addicts in Michigan, but he left that line of work because it was emotionally draining.
Peerbolt then gravitated to nurseries and landscaping, which took him to Arizona, California and then the Northwest.
“I really love being in the fields,” he said.
Along the way, he picked up a bachelor’s degree in plant science from the University of California-Davis in 1986.
Peerbolt was introduced to berry crops in Washington, where did field scouting and crop quality monitoring for several growers.
His network of contacts grew over time, which led to the idea of publishing a weekly newsletter about field conditions across the Northwest.
Disseminating such information means Peerbolt must walk a fine line, providing useful facts without revealing proprietary data.
Berry crop commissions in the region paid to become sponsors of Peerbolt’s newsletter and eventual website.
Their endorsement “gave me some credibility,” which led to further consulting work and research grants, he said.
“It wasn’t a planned thing. It just grew as we went along,” said Peerbolt.
During his time in the industry, berry crops have risen in prominence as the public learned more about their healthful qualities.
However, Peerbolt said he’s troubled by some developments in the industry.
Mounting regulatory and paperwork requirements have put smaller growers at a disadvantage while big producers are better able to withstand the expense.
“It just becomes very, very burdensome,” he said. “The more rules there are, the more larger organizations are favored.”
At the same time, consumers are increasingly supportive of local farming, which may buoy smaller berry farmers.
“It really is unpredictable,” Peerbolt said. “There are trends going in a number of different directions.”
Occupation: Owner of Peerbolt Crop Management
Education: Attended the University of Michigan to study psychology. Graduated from the University of California-Davis with a bachelor’s degree in plant science in 1986.
Family: Wife, Anna
Hometown: Portland, Ore.