Blackberry industry faces 'a minefield'
Labor, loss of grower support key concerns for industry's future
By JOHN SCHMITZ
For the Capital Press
After a good 2011 that saw decent yields and grower prices, Oregon's blackberry industry faces several challenges as it heads into the future.
"You're going to walk me through a minefield here," said crop consultant Tom Peerbolt, co-owner of Peerbolt Crop Management, when asked to comment on the state of Oregon's processed blackberry industry.
Peerbolt said the No. 1 challenge is labor, both from an availability and cost standpoint.
"Labor supply is a huge issue with most specialty crops, and certainly with caneberries," he said.
Another challenge is that Oregon's signature blackberry cultivar, the Marionberry, is having to share the limelight with another cultivar called Black Diamond.
While its acreage is still relatively low, Black Diamond, a trailing variety with several advantages over the Marionberry, has edged out the Marionberry in new plantings.
The issue is what will happen to the promotions if Black Diamond production continues to expand and closes ranks with Marionberry.
Though infestations have been down the last two years, growers continue to battle spotted wing drosophila, Peerbolt said.
"It seems like the only thing I've talked about the last couple of years ... (and) it still poses a very significant threat until we know more about it," he said.
Another challenge is dwindling budgets for research and extension support from USDA Agricultural Research Service, the Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research and Oregon State University.
One example in the blackberry sector is the recent vacancy of a berry extension agent position at OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center that will go unfilled.
USDA-ARS research leader-plant pathologist Bob Martin, who also spoke at the workshop, said discretionary funds for breeding, pathology and horticulture programs at that agency have decreased by over 50 percent over the past five years.
He added that USDA's grant pool to support small fruit research has been slashed by two-thirds the last two years.
One approach to help fund small fruits research in Oregon is the budding OSU Berry Endowed Professorship.
"This is a way to secure a future that won't be at the vagaries of government funding," said NWREC director Mike Bondi said. "The dollars (once the endowment matures) will be there in perpetuity."
Bondi said that so far around $150,000 has been collected from private sources for the endowment, with a goal of $500,000 by the end of 2012. If that's met, it could earn the endowment matching interest funds from the OSU provost.
To fully fund a full-time faculty position, the endowment would need to reach around $3 million, Bondi said. "Endowments are marathons, not sprints."
To help bolster the weakened caneberry Extension ranks, OSU berry Extension agent Wei Yang is being asked to expand his workload at the Aurora station beyond blueberries to include caneberries.
OSU Extension berry crops specialist Bernadine Strik will continue to provide blackberry, and other small fruit, extension and research.