Solving a Mystery

by ERIC RUTHFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & angy-flavored mountain huckleberries have long been a treat for those in the Inland Northwest. They're a wild crop, which makes them rare, and the price is usually high -- selling for $10 a pound recently at the Spokane Farmers Market.

The berries have soared in popularity as national health magazines and TV shows tout their reputed health benefits. One huckleberry wholesaler says some of his customers are convinced that it's a cure for glaucoma.

"I don't peddle them that way," says Rick Lamonte, president of NW Wildfoods, a wholesaler based in Burlington, Wash., who sells about $100,000 a year in packs of frozen huckleberries (most via the Internet).

However, Lamonte's health-conscious customers get annoyed if the crop is late or unavailable in a given year. Since huckleberries are wild, there's no way to increase production, and the supply is unpredictable. "What I don't understand is how one year is great and two or three will be awful," he says. "It would be nice to know you're going in to the market with blue huckleberries."

Now a researcher at the University of Idaho in Sandpoint is trying to help solve the supply problem by cultivating a huckleberry bush that can be grown on farms. Danny Barney, a horticulturalist, has been working since 1994 to isolate and reproduce a plant that can be sold as seedlings and then harvested on a predictable schedule.

The huckleberry, however, has proven to be a difficult plant to tame.

Heavy snow pack in the mountains in winter is important for the protection of the plants, Barney says. The berries won't sprout when they're covered in snow, but the crop can be lost if the snow melts too early.

"The February warm spell can trick the huckleberries into coming out and then they get killed by the late spring frost," he says.

At a research station near Sandpoint, Barney is growing 87 selections that look promising. He's sending them out to cooperating researchers to see if they can grow the seedlings in other places.

Barney says that growing a few huckleberry bushes in your yard is not that difficult. "If you can grow rhododendrons, you can grow huckleberries," he says, but the challenge is finding a variety that can grow under different conditions and provide the predictable results that a commercial farmer would need to make a good profit.

When he does find a suitable huckleberry -- and he guesses it will be available for use around 2012 -- he'll propagate it clonally, meaning that seedlings will be taken from the same parent plant rather than from seeds.

To show just how hard it can be, Barney cited an example involving apples. In that case, researchers trying to create a new variety of apple tree crossed two apple varieties, which produced 11,000 seedlings -- two of which were worth naming and one of which became commercially available.

Barney says that the huckleberries will need to be grown at an altitude between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, and they will need to grow in sandy loam soil. They need partial shade from trees and benefit from a cool, moist climate. He says that it will be possible to grow them in high-altitude areas across Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

While the project will have the potential of making money for farmers, Barney says his primary goal is to preserve a natural resource from over-harvesting. According to a Washington Department of Natural Resources report, the potential for huckleberries has declined in recent years because of fire suppression -- with fewer forest fires, trees become denser, preventing enough sunlight from getting through to the huckleberry patches.

Malcolm Dell, owner of Gourmet Innovations, a fruit processing company in Orofino, Idaho, says that wild huckleberry harvests are likely to continue to decline because of forest management practices. "Unless we can get a handle on the weather, wild fires and find some common sense middle ground with logging practices, the resource will continue to decline in concert with rising demand," he says. He's hoping to see a dual market with both domestic and wild huckleberries competing. Last year's huckleberry crop was perhaps the worst on record, although he's hopeful that the past winter's heavy snow will mean a good harvest this year.

Other producers are optimistic about the idea of domestic huckleberries, although they are skeptical about whether the flavor could be preserved. Lamonte offered an analogy: It's like saying farm-raised and wild salmon are the same. "To make it domestic, you lose that kind of romantic feeling about it," Lamonte says, adding that wild blueberries have many of the same benefits that wild huckleberries have, but because there is a domestic version of blueberries available, wild blueberries aren't as sought after.

Likewise, Gordon Beck of Beck's Harvest House, a farm products market in Green Bluff, worries having domestic version could hurt their mystique. "Huckleberries wouldn't be as popular if they weren't unique."