California’s abundant sunshine enables growers to produce high-quality, very sweet Southern Highbush variety blueberries. But, blueberry plants are difficult and expensive to establish and maintain, in part because of California's soil chemistry.
“Blueberries are adapted to grow in forests, in acidic soils,” Jimenez said. “We’re growing them in a desert in alkaline soil. That requires that we acidify the soil when we establish the crop and continuously acidify the irrigation water – which is very costly.”
For example, a 2009 Blueberry Cost Study produced by UC Davis calculated that equipment needs for acidification - including a storage tank, pump and monitoring kit - amounts to $5,500. In addition, the growers must purchase large quantities of sulfuric acid to add to the soil and irrigation water.
Reducing acidification cost is the goal of a new blueberry trial at Kearney, in which Jimenez has grafted the most common commercial blueberry varieties on the roots of farkleberry plants (Vaccinium arboreum). Farkelberry is a small, stiff-branched evergreen bush that is more tolerant of alkaline soils than blueberries.
So far, the two-month-old plants seem to be growing well in their naturally alkaline soil. The coming years will reveal whether using this technique will improve the economic viability of California blueberry farms and provide California consumers with local, healthful and delicious blueberries at a reasonable cost.
The project is being conducted in collaboration with Oregon State University and Florida State University.
Learn more about the blueberry trial by viewing the video below: