CORVALLIS, Ore. – A senior official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture will visit Oregon State University on Wednesday to announce two grants worth more than $3 million that will support the production of organic blackberries and help address the need for more small farmers.
Ann Mills, a deputy undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, will meet with university officials and will discuss the growth of organic farming, this initiative and programs to aid farmers.
One grant for $2.4 million will fund research for four years in Oregon and North Carolina to help growers produce nutritional, high-yielding organic blackberries more cost-effectively. Oregon farmers sold nearly $24 million of blackberries last year, according to a report by the OSU Extension Service.
The second grant, worth nearly $700,000, will fund the creation of an online course to help aspiring farmers and ranchers get started.
"Organic production in berry crops has increased tremendously but there is little research-based information to answer the questions that growers have," said OSU berry crops researcher Bernadine Strik, the lead investigator on the project. “Our goal is to fill this niche.”
One area of concern is possible contamination from beneficial insects, like spiders and ladybird beetle larvae, in machine-harvested fruit. Organic growers use the bugs to combat crop-damaging pests. Researchers will document the number of insects in the machine-harvested fruit and look for ways to reduce them.
Given that weeds are one of the biggest headaches for organic growers, the researchers will also compare how hand hoeing, weed mats, and a hands-off approach affect plant growth, yield and quality of the fruit. Organic fertilizers will also be tested to see which ones don't clog up drip irrigation systems, a problem in organic production. Tiny cameras in clear tubes inserted into the ground will monitor roots to see how the different weed control and irrigation strategies affect their growth, size and quality of the berries.
Other work will monitor fruit that's harvested by machine and hand for bacterial contamination and food safety risks; how the type of cultivar, harvest methods, storage and processing conditions affect nutritional properties; and which management techniques are the most economical.
The research will be conducted at OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, at Riverbend Organic Farms in Jefferson, Ore., and in North Carolina with help from North Carolina State University. Researchers will study cultivars that include the commonly grown Marion blackberry and the relatively new thornless cultivar called Black Diamond. Although focused on organic production, findings from the study will also benefit conventional growers, Strik said.
The second grant will support an online course to help new farmers and ranchers begin operations. In recent years, the OSU Extension Service's small farms program has offered a bricks-and-mortar version of this class in Albany, Aurora, Central Point, Grants Pass and Redmond. The online version will make the course more accessible to individuals in remote rural areas. People can enroll in the online course in 2013, but parts may be available sooner.
Called Growing Farms, it addresses topics like labor, cash flow, marketing, financing, pest management and liability. About 250 people from about 150 farms have completed the training, said Garry Stephenson, the coordinator of the small farms program.
The grant will also fund the expansion of support networks for female farmers and ranchers in central Oregon and the area surrounding Portland, adding to existing groups in southern Oregon and Benton County. New farmers and ranchers are needed, Stephenson said, because someone needs to take up the job as those who work the land begin to retire.
"In the next 10 years or so we'll be experiencing the largest transition of farmland in our history," he said. "We're going to need more farmers."