Blueberry growers fight for scientist in Mount Vernon
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- President Barack Obama has proposed adding a scientist to the Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research, igniting a controversy over where the researcher should be based.
Washington blueberry growers want the scientist in Mount Vernon, Wash. The area is home to sizable blueberry production but has no small fruits plant pathologist, said Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Blueberry Commission.
Bob Martin, the center's research leader, however, believes small fruits research needs can best be met by keeping the scientist in the Corvallis-based center.
"I understand the Washington point of view," Martin said. "Most small fruits research programs are located in Corvallis. But I think we can do better if we have a technician up there and the research program here.
"There are a lot of advantages to being located on campus," he said, including accessibility to graduate and undergraduate students, proximity to seminars and other support services.
The proposal to add a scientist to the center is one of only two new Agricultural Research Service positions in Obama's 2012-13 budget, Martin said.
The center has 15 researchers, including two in Idaho and one in Prosser, Wash. The remainder work out of the center's Corvallis home, which is located on the Oregon State University campus.
The new scientist would be assigned to study fruit rots, Martin said.
The Washington growers asked the Oregon Blueberry Commission to draft a letter supporting establishing the position in Mount Vernon. But the commission at a meeting in Salem May 7 balked at the proposal, opting instead to look further into the issue.
It has not taken a stance to date.
Washington's blueberry industry has tripled in recent years, going from 18 million pounds four years ago to more than 54 million pounds last year.
Schreiber said he believes Washington production will approach 70 million pounds this year, the same as is projected for Oregon.
Most believe Washington's production, which is growing rapidly on the eastern side of the state, will eventually top Oregon's.
Despite this, Schreiber said, Washington has no small fruit pathologist.
"We have ongoing concerns that the small fruits research center's research is pretty heavily focused toward Oregon," he said.
"We're desperately in need of a small fruit pathologist in Washington, and this is the first position to come up in a while," he said.
"We're very sensitive to the Oregon versus Washington deal, and we don't want to think of this in those terms," Schreiber said. "But there is a void in the ARS presence in Washington in the berry world."
Martin said where the position will be located ultimately is in the hands of the ARS Office of National Programs.
If the position is still in place after Congress approves a budget, Martin said the agency will begin advertising for the position.
Optimally, Martin said he would like to have a scientist hired in time to participate in next winter's grower meetings.