Excepts from Dr. Barney’s Research Reports — 2004

May 4, 2004

The conferences have generated more than enough interest and there is no shortage of volunteers to work as cooperating growers. Most I believe will obtain sufficient information from newsletters, websites, and annual conferences to manage their plots. I plan to select perhaps 20 growers and forest land managers in the region to serve as designated cooperators where we will establish trials for data collection. I already have two designated growers identified. At this time, I caution against soliciting more prospective growers. Let’s get some on-farm or forest trials established for testing and demonstrating first.

More soil analyses arrived last night, describing soil types for naturally-occurring huckleberry colonies around the five northwest states. I still have to break the data down and analyze it, but it looks as if we have some reasonable flexibility on soil types. Soil pH and water drainage appear to me more critical than soil texture, although sandy loams and loamy sands still appear to be the most common huckleberry soils. There were enough loam designations,however, to indicate slightly heavier soils are not necessarily unsuitable for culture.

I’m presently fully occupied breeding huckleberries and bilberries, but plan to get a newsletter out to those on my huckleberry mailing list in June.

On a research note, It appears we finally have a Cascade Huckleberry selection that may approach cultivar quality. I have numerous promising mountain huckleberry and oval-leaved bilberries identified.

June 29, 2004

As for using the blueberry fertilizer guide for huckleberries, it may serve as a starting point, but there are significant differences between huckleberries and blueberries in the way they respond to nutrients in field plantings. By the way, Bob Mahler and I revised this guide several years ago.

When grown in containers, huckleberries and bilberries respond well to fertilization. The guide Growing Western Huckleberries provides detailed instructions on container culture. A no-cost on-line version is available at:
http://info.ag.uidaho.edu/Resources/PDFs/BUL0821.pdf

In forest stands, fertilizing huckleberries, bilberries, and their close relatives has produced inconsistent results. Sometimes it is beneficial, but has also sometimes been detrimental. If other, competing plants are present, they may respond more rapidly to the fertilizers and compete even more strongly with the huckleberries and bilberries. Remember that these species thrive under wild conditions with no fertilization. What appears much more important is soil pH. In a survey of 60 huckleberry soils in the five northwestern states, the only consistent factors we found was that the soils were moist and well drained and had pH values averaging between 4 and 5, with some acceptable sites in the 5.5 range (7.0 is neutral).

Given our present knowledge, I believe the best sites for huckleberries and bilberries include acidic, moist, well-drained sandy loams to loamy sands, pH 4-5, open north-facing slopes or partially shaded slopes with other orientations. In areas with winter temperatures of 0 F or below, consistent 2-5 feet of snow cover during the winter is highly beneficial. People near the Pacific coast have more options on which species to grow. Whether snow cover is needed for high-elevation species grown at sea level remains to be determined. In areas with cold winters and little snow cover, winter protection may be needed.

I have a newsletter focusing on huckleberries that is almost finished. If you are not sure if you are on the mailing list and would like to receive the newsletter, please send me your name, mailing address, and email address.

Commercial harvests have started at low elevations in northern Idaho and surrounding regions. Although we had an extremely early spring, bloom occurred just a little before average. Some late frosts hit the region, but it is too early to tell how much they impacted the crops. No news yet on the quality or quantity of fruit. Demand from processors and brokers for berries is, reportedly, strong.

We had very high survival rates in our field plantings and outdoor containerized plant yards  over the winter. We did have some cold temperatures in October and November with little or no snow cover. We also experienced subzero temperatures during the winter when the tops of the plants were exposed above the snow. Many of the plants showed damage to or death of exposed canes. This again emphasizes the desirability of snow cover in colder climates.

Several oval-leaved bilberries appear especially promising in terms of early production and large numbers of fruits. We are not yet finished with 2004 evaluations and selections, but I anticipate several new oval-leaved bilberry selections this year.

July 25, 2004

Specialty crops have great potential for northern Idaho and surrounding regions. None of them, however (including huckleberries) are going to make anyone rich quickly with little effort. We saw that mentality destroy fledgling raspberry and herb industries in this area before they had a chance to properly establish themselves.

The key is to select a crop that is well adapted to your site, start small and grow slowly, and keep in mind that marketing is critical. In a study a few years ago in northern Idaho, we found that the greatest challenge, by far, for specialty agricultural enterprises was marketing. Next came capital to start and maintain the enterprise until it was profitable and labor to manage or process the crop. Actually growing a crop was the easiest part of the process.

August 4, 2004

2004 is shaping up to be an average to slightly above average crop in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington for mountain huckleberries. Oval-leaved bilberry crops appear to be average to somewhat below average in berry size and yields. Early rains did produce large fruits on the early-ripening sites. Our unseasonably hot and dry summer, however, is likely to reduce berry quality and yields on some droughty, late-ripening sites.

I collected on August 2 west of Priest Lake in Bonner County, Idaho and Pend Oreille County, Washington. Mountain huckleberry and oval-leaved bilberry fruits were beginning to ripen at 4,200 feet elevation, with fully ripe fruits at lower elevations. The best locations in this region at this time are between 3,000 and 4,000 feet elevation, with late-ripening colonies still producing acceptable fruit at 2,500 feet.

I will be collecting today east of Lake Pend Oreille in Bonner County, Idaho in the Trestle Creek and Lightning Creek drainages. Contact me if you nee information on berries in those areas.

September 3, 2004

One of the conference attendees from central Washington brought me some plants last week. Plants they sowed from seed in January of this year are as large as my three-year-olds. The longer season in central and western Oregon and Washington will give nurseries there a huge advantage. Our best prospects are probably in fruit production, processing, and marketing.

As of right now, I believe we have eight cooperating growers, with one or two more likely. They are located in northern, central, and southwestern Idaho, northwestern Washington, and central Washington. That number of growers is just right to begin with.

As for the Spokesman, no, I did not hear from them. I was interviewed by the Missoulian, Whitefish (Montana) paper, Boise State U., and a few others this year. Interest in the huckleberries remains high.

I’m concerned about exports of raw fruits. I have heard apocryphal reports of groups of pickers being brought in from out of state, harvesting the fruit, and then selling it for high prices in areas like Utah. I am also hearing similar rumors of large amounts of raw fruits being exported to the Pacific Rim. Increasing our production is certainly an important goal. Equally important to the survival of the industry will be generating money locally and regionally from value-added products and marketing.

September 9, 2004

I am just leaving for several days fishing on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene, and will get in touch with you when I get back into town.

I have been considering funding for the huckleberry work and there are several options. I am submitting a germplasm evaluation grant proposal this morning to fund research here, but a grant to support establishment efforts by growers is also needed. A SARE grant is obvious, but amounts available are far less than what they used to be. The Idaho State Department of Ag distributed federal funds for specialty crop research/establishment for a couple of years. The status of renewing the program is still in question. The Organic Farming Research organization sponsors small grants. From a marketing perspective, organic production would be highly desirable for these crops. Regional economic development or federal rural development grants might be another source of funding. We might also consider grants for forest management, focusing on multiple resource management, i.e. huckleberries, bear grass, mushrooms, etc.

Two of our biggest challenges are inertia and the tradition of secretiveness by everyone in the trade. Those weaknesses are being exploited by brokers who are buying local berries cheaply and exporting them at high prices overseas or to other states. For this industry to survive and expand, we need to be converting the raw fruit into value added products and marketing them out of our region. Once we get the production side going, we need to consider forming cooperatives linking producers, processors, and marketers.

Thanks for your continued interest in the project.

December 6, 2004

I just returned from the Northwest Center for Small Fruit Research (NCSFR) meetings in Boise. It looks like we received another year of funding to complete phase one of the project. I also learned of another researcher in the upper Midwest who has developed a shortcut for producing nursery stock with these species. I’ll contact him this week for details. Dr. Chad Finn from the USDA in Corvallis has some advanced selections of his own that are going out to the same cooperating nursery we plan to use in Oregon. Interest in the program is high and the administrator of the NCSFR plans to highlight our program to the USDA as a success story. I also just heard from a grower in Alberta who wants to grow huckleberries and offered to participate in the program.

My goal has always been to develop an industry for the Northwest that is unique to the region and can benefit, especially, our rural areas and contribute to the tourism industry. Unfortunately, the information generated by this project is rapidly available all over the world and there are those who will try to capitalize on that information. At present, my plant materials are safe, but once they enter the nursery trade, that could change rapidly. I’ll work with the UI Research Foundation to try and patent the materials in such a way that we can protect our intellectual investment and keep in here for the people who helped develop it.

Another very serious concern I have is the import of nursery stock from other countries. We are already facing a serious problem with sudden oak death in the region and have had the currant and gooseberry industries destroyed by imported pine seedlings carrying whit pine blister rust. I’ll be working with the blueberry industry and departments of agriculture to ensure appropriate quarantines are in place.

December 15, 2004

(In response to a grower inquiry)

Thank you for your interest in our huckleberry program. I have been working to develop managed and cultivated huckleberries as commercial crops for the Northwest for about ten years. We are finally at a point where experimental plantings are feasible, although release of cultivars is still a few years away. I am working with about fourteen cooperating growers in Idaho, Washington, and Montana establishing experimental plantings or managing naturally occurring stands of huckleberries and bilberries. I will also be working with two commercial fruit nurseries to test prospective cultivars, probably beginning in the spring of 2006.

I have a website  that provides quite a lot of information on huckleberries of the Northwest and their prospects for cultivation. That site is at www.ag.uidaho.edu/sandpoint. The Berry Bulletin newsletter issue on the home page is dedicated to huckleberries. Our research page goes into detail on our research. A production guide, Growing Western Huckleberries, is available.

The Northwest Berry and Grape Information Network also has huckleberry pages, but I have not updated them recently as much information has been developed within the past few months and we are still trying to integrate it. http://berrygrape.oregonstate.edu/fruitgrowing/fruitgrowing.htm

The Hood River area is home to perhaps eight western huckleberry and bilberry species, at least five of which have commercial potential. For culinary products, mountain huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and Cascade huckleberry (V. deliciosum) have outstanding flavor and aroma. Red huckleberry (V. parvifolium) is less flavorful, but seems to be popular in some areas west of the Cascades for pastries. Bilberry (V. myrtillus) has an established market for nutritional supplements and botanical products and oval-leaved bilberry (V. ovalifolium) may have potential for similar products.

We do not have improved varieties yet, but a few nurseries carry seedlings that you can use to test at your location.

As for site selection, loams and sand loams with pH between 4-5 are preferred.

Market potential is strong, especially for locally-produced specialty and niche products targeting the tourist and gift trades. The variety of products now available is staggering, including culinary, cosmetic, nutritional, and ornamental items. We have a number of huckleberry processors in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Limited supplies presently limit market expansion. As I mentioned, demand frequently exceeds supplies. I have reports of raw fruits being shipped to the Pacific Rim for use as nutritional supplements. It certainly seems feasible to produce the supplements in the US and ship the finished product at substantially increased profits.

In October 2004, the Western Huckleberry and Bilberry Association was formed to represent producers, processors, marketers, and researchers. We are in the process of setting up a leadership organization and bylaws. The minutes of the organizational meeting are attached. Annual dues were set at $25 initially.

At this time, managed production and cultivation are strictly experimental. I am not encouraging anyone new to get into processing the berries because all fruit now comes from wild stands and demand already exceeds available supplies. Our focus at this time is to increase the supply side, provide education, and facilitate networking among Association members.

My goal is to expand the huckleberry industry in the Northwest to provide economic opportunities for areas hit by loss agricultural, timber, and mining industry jobs.

Best wishes,

Danny L. Barney, Ph.D.
Professor of Horticulture
Superintendent
University of Idaho
Sandpoint Research & Extension Center
1904 North Boyer Avenue
Sandpoint, ID 83864
Phone: 208-263-2323
Fax: 208-263-4470
Email: dbarney@uidaho.edu
Website: http://www.ag.uidaho.edu/sandpoint/index.htm

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