Interview with Dr. Barney
Although Dr. Barney is not currently propagating and growing huckleberries, he is still considered the expert on the subject and giving interviews to interested parties.
We are fortunate to have a written copy of his interview with Kristina Johnson who is a food and agriculture reporter:
1. Where does domestication of the berries stand now? Is there research close to succeeding?
Unfortunately, I believe little university or other government research is presently being conducted on domestication of western huckleberries and bilberries. Research funding is limited, and efforts are being directed toward well-established crops, such as raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries. Much knowledge remains to be discovered and developed before most western Vaccinium crops can be grown successfully in commercial settings.
It is important to identify the different crops. I use the term “western huckleberries and bilberries,” which includes about eight species in the genus Vaccinium. All are edible, and several have outstanding culinary quality. The seeds are usually small to very small. The common names “huckleberry,” “bilberry,” and “whortleberry” are interchangeable and many species are known by all of these names and more. Eastern huckleberries are members of genus Gaylusaccia and, like Vaccinium, members of family Ericaceae. Unlike western Vaccinium species, eastern huckleberries have ten large, hard seeds and the berry flavor and culinary quality leave much to be desired. When it came time to domesticate a blue American fruit, farmers and breeders chose highbush and lowbush blueberries.
The domestication efforts that I was involved with included work on Vaccinium species … have the greatest immediate potential as culinary crops. Vaccinium ovalifolium (oval-leaf huckleberry) has good potential as a nutraceutical crop due to its high antioxidant properties. I did not work much with Vaccinium ovatum (shot or blackwinter huckleberry) which grows along the Pacific coast and has been cultivated to a small extent, primarily for ornamental foliage used by florists.
We were able to develop and demonstrate several production systems, and know how to grow the berries. I grew many thousands of plants in Idaho and colleagues also grew the plants successfully in northwestern Montana and western Oregon. The greatest limiting factor is the lack of improved varieties that have been developed to provide good site adaptability, acceptable growth and plant habit, and commercially-acceptable fruit in sustainable yields.
My breeding program at the University of Idaho produced some advanced selections. However, we were still at least one and probably two generations from releasing a cultivated variety when the research station that I was at closed due to budget cuts and I left the University. That program was not picked up by anyone else. Some of the selections are still being tested by growers in the northwestern U.S. and western Canada. I intend to resume the Vaccinium breeding program upon my retirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 2015. That program will take place in Southcentral Alaska.
2. Can you explain the incentives to domesticate the berries? Is it primarily commercial manufacturers pushing the research? What are the economic and ecological incentives and/or potential drawbacks to domesticating the berry?
Western huckleberries and bilberries have been harvested for food for at least centuries and likely millennia. They were vitally important both for food and trade for several Native American and First Peoples nations in western North America. When European colonists arrived they quickly adopted the crops and by the early 1900s were shipping large quantities of wildcrafted (plants harvested from the wild) berries to eastern markets. Picking the berries is very labor intensive and usually takes place in remote locations. The fruits are borne individually on the bushes, rather than in large cluster like domestic blueberries, and mechanical harvesters are not often feasible. Therefore, the amount of berries one person can pick per day is low. The commercial market peaked in the 1930s, and largely died during World War II when labor became scarce. The market began to re-emerge in the 1980s as general and ecotourism increased in the Northwest and western Canada.
Prior to the early 1900s, forest fires were not controlled and the forests were very different than they are now. Tree density was lower and understory shrubs much more abundant. With the advent of modern fire-fighting methods, fires were largely removed from the landscape. Native Americans had long kept highly productive berry harvest areas productive using controlled fires. That practice was outlawed. By the end of the 20th century, tree density had greatly increased while productive berry acreage shrank dramatically as the trees reclaimed the landscape and shaded out the berry crops.
While none of the berry species is threatened or endangered, colonies suitable for commercial harvest have greatly decreased in size and number due to forest encroachment and development of forest lands. With increased demand for the fruit for commercial culinary and nutraceutical purposes, commercial harvests have become increasingly aggressive and have reduced the availability of fruit for cultural, recreational, and subsistence pickers. In a related way, commercial harvests have resulted in conflicts with some Northwestern Native American groups, for whom huckleberries are an important part of their culture.
Wild huckleberry harvests are highly variable. During some years, the yields are very high and during other years very low. On average, you can expect a good harvest every 3 to 7 years. Such unpredictability makes operating a commercial enterprise challenging and encourages overharvest whenever the opportunity presents itself. The unpredictability also influences prices greatly, impacting income for pickers, brokers, and processors.
My program was intended to provide reliable crops of commercially sustainable quantities of fruit grown in cultivation or in managed forest stands (like highbush and lowbush blueberries, respectively) and to leave the wild forest huckleberry colonies for noncommercial harvests.
More of the interview next post!