By Olivia Wilkes
In a move aimed at advancing and promoting Alabama’s berry and grape industries, Auburn University has joined the multistate Southern Region Small Fruit Consortium, a collaborative initiative that brings together producers, researchers and extension specialists to strengthen the South’s small-fruit industries.
Desmond Layne, who came to Auburn in June as Department of Horticulture head, said Auburn is the eighth land-grant institution to join the regional consortium, which he helped establish 20 years ago while a faculty member and extension specialist at Clemson University. The small-fruit industry includes blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes and muscadines.
“As part of the team, Auburn can work with the other universities to address issues that face small-fruit growers in the region,” Layne said, adding that multi-institutional collaborations will help make research proposals more competitive for grants from federal agencies and other funding sources.
Auburn’s membership in the association also will enhance the educational training available to producers, Alabama Cooperative Extension System Director Gary Lemme said.
“Small fruits are a commercial commodity for farmers through farmers markets, U-pick operations and wineries and are a favorite of private gardeners growing fresh fruits for their family’s table,” Lemme said. “The consortium allows extension horticulturalists to exchange production and marketing research with colleagues across the region for the benefit of Alabama fruit producers and consumers.”
Layne said Auburn’s involvement in the consortium should help improve small-fruit producers’ profitability and the state’s economy.
“We import a lot of fruit from other parts of the U.S. and other parts of the world,” Layne said. “The more that we can grow here in Alabama, the more our local growers can have successful and profitable businesses to support their families.”
Each member institution invests $35,000 annually in the consortium, and every state has four representatives, including one commercial grower, on the steering committee. Representing Alabama on the committee are Layne, Auburn horticulture professor and extension specialist Elina Coneva, regional extension agent James Miles and Morgan County producer David Reeves.
College of Agriculture Dean Paul Patterson called joining the consortium an exciting development for Auburn, its horticulture department and Alabama producers of small-fruit crops.
“We look forward to the collaborative opportunities this will bring for our research and extension teams and their peers throughout the Southeast,” he said