PARMA, Idaho — A University of Idaho researcher and a major hop grower in southwestern Idaho are coordinating their efforts to try to figure out how to successfully grow blueberries in the region.
If their respective field trials pan out, Brock & Phillip Obendorf Farms could become the first producer to successfully grow blueberries on a large scale in Idaho.
“The jury’s still out on how it’s going to turn out,” said Phil Obendorf, co-owner of Obendorf Farms, one of the state’s largest hop growers.
He has been growing 18 acres of blueberries on the farm for two years now, with mixed results. The plants produce berries but yields are nowhere near what it will take to make it a profitable crop for the farm, which also grows onions, wheat and corn.
Obendorf said high soil pH is proving to be a major challenge. A measure of soil acidity, high pH levels can affect a plant’s roots and prevent it from up-taking some micronutrients, Obendord said.
UI researcher Essie Fallahi, who heads the university’s pomology program at the nearby Parma experiment station, has been trying to grow blueberries for several years and he is also having a problem with high soil pH content.
“We are trying to grow blueberries but we are fighting with high pH problems,” he said. “It’s a major problem and causes damage to production.”
Fallahi said a solution, one that Obendorf is also using, is to add acid when watering the plants.
“The acid brings the pH down and makes the micronutrients available,” he said. “When we inject a lot of acid, we have had some success but it is expensive to do that.”
Fallahi began growing a blueberry variety provided by Obendorf Farms this year at the experiment station.
“I’m trying to help Essie so he can help me,” Obendorf said.
Obendorf said that if the farm’s blueberry experiment is successful, it will help the operation diversify.
“We’re just looking for another crop that could be the next emerging market in this area,” he said. “There are no blueberries grown locally here (but) there’s demand for them.”
This year was the first Obendorf Farms sold its blueberries commercially, to three supermarkets, three farmers’ markets and four fruit stands.
Obendord said his plants are yielding about 10 percent of what they need to in order to be profitable but it takes four or five years for them to reach full production.
He’s hopeful that despite the current low yields and high pH issue, blueberries will turn out to be a profitable crop for the farm.
“I think it’s very promising,” he said. “We’re definitely hoping for a bigger crop next year. We’re planning to keep expanding.”