Several research grants to help Whatcom agriculture industry

By:  The Bellingham Herald – Dave Gallagher

A few key federal grants announced this week could help Whatcom County berry farmers improve growing efficiency and export sales.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $3.2 million in Specialty Crop Block Grants to Washington state, with about $345,000 going toward programs that will benefit local farmers. The funding for these grants is already in place and shouldn't be affected by the current Farm Bill debate taking place in Congress, said Viet Shelton, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Bothell, whose district includes parts of Whatcom County.

Three grants have potentially impact in Whatcom County, said Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission and Whatcom Farm Friends:

• The Red Raspberry Commission will receive money toward researching cane management and making it more efficient. The pruning and tying of raspberry canes requires intense manual labor, so this roughly $170,000 over three years will allow study of growing plants in a way that can be managed more by machines, Bierlink said.

Bierlink noted that costs for the pruning and tying of canes with current methods are high, with thousands of people working through the winter months.

• A $100,000 grant over two years for Whatcom Farm Friends will go toward increasing the sale of blueberries to Asian markets by reducing the amount of chemical residue from sprays that protect the fruit from the spotted wing drosophila.

The insect pest arrived in this area a few years ago, and commercial farmers have been spraying chemicals to protect the crops. Finding better spraying methods that lead to less residue may attract more export sales, Bierlink said.

• A second grant for Whatcom Farm Friends would focus on water supply, attempting to secure access to irrigation water for specialty crops. The grant funding is for about $75,000 over three years.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted in a news release that these types of grants support an important Northwest Washington industry and are in danger of disappearing in future years if the Farm Bill is not passed.

"Agriculture is a cornerstone of the economy in Northwest Washington. Blueberries, red raspberries and other products from this region are in demand around the world," Cantwell said in the news release. "These grants support the research and export programs that grow our state's agriculture economy. That's why the Farm Bill is the most important jobs bill Congress can pass."